Six Degrees of Separation. Most of you have probably heard this phrase before. Some of you may remember a game from your college days involving this phrase and Kevin Bacon. For those who don’t fall into either category we have some information. The phrase basically promotes the theory that we are all separated from one another by six steps or less. Lets examine this theory and how this knowledge can help you in the workplace and beyond.
This idea grew from a research experiment conducted in the sixties. Subjects in the US Midwest were given a letter and the name of a target on the East Coast. The instructions were to mail the letter to someone who might know someone who would know the target. In general the target was reached in about six steps. This experiment has been repeated many times, including on a larger scale with email, producing similar results.
Before we go further I want to acknowledge that there people who say this is a myth or junk science based on misinterpreted data. Many others believe that the theory is essentially true. “Connected” by Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, and James H. Fowler, PhD, offers a good examination of the subject. I’m not here to defend one position or the other but I will say that based on my experience I tend towards the believer position. Let me explain.
When I first read about this theory I decided to do my own unscientific experiment (you should try this). I randomly picked several celebrity names to see how many links I could establish. I was very surprised to find that I was within six steps of all of them. The targets I chose included George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Bruce Springsteen, John Elway, Robert De Niro, and William Shatner.
I’ve also done another “unscientific” exercise while conducting workshops that seems to support the theory. During the workshop I’ll have five people at each table stand up. I’ll then put five random celebrity names up on a white board. Each table is to then establish a link between someone at the table and each celebrity. Each time a link is established someone at the table can sit down. Usually by the end of the exercise everyone (or almost everyone) is seated.
Another less controversial theory states that our sphere of influence reaches out about three steps, to a friend of a friend of a friend. I’ve had first hand experience with this as well.
During a conversation with a friend the subject of vintage bicycles came up. My friend said that installing vintage parts on their bicycles was popular with people in his cycling group. I mentioned this to my son who had just purchased a vintage bicycle. A few days later I overheard my son telling his friend what my friend had said. That information influenced my son’s friend to purchase a vintage bicycle.
What does all this mean and how does it help you? Whether you believe these theories or not, the takeaway is that we influence more people than we think. Our actions and our words are observed and heard by people of whom we may not be aware. This knowledge should inspire us to insure that our actions and words are such that they are a positive influence. We should be doing this in the workplace as well as in our personal lives. Consider the following:
- Do you believe we are all connected by six degrees of separation?
- Are you usually (no one is always) a positive influence on others?
©2016 Joseph T Drammissi