What is sociometry?

Carl Sagan has said, "There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."  He goes on to say that we have "a responsibility to deal more kindly with each other."  Where can we possibly start on this mission of greater kindness and conviviality, when there are overwhelming mentifacts that keep us in opposition to each other.  Silos at work, them and us, the 99% vs the 1%, left vs right, corporate ownership of mass media, "I'm right, you're wrong", extremists (of all hues) in our communities.  All over the place, far from dealing more kindly with each other, it can feel like we are heading in the opposite direction and becoming more fragmented as a species. We can't agree on how to stop the degradation of the one and only pale blue dot we have to live on, or even whether it's being degraded at all.

Let's face it, we are pretty messy, us humans.  When it comes to groups (that includes families, teams, clubs, organisations, nation-states), we are pretty hit-and-miss about it.  After many years of working in and with groups, I think I hold the view that humans in groups are inherently dysfunctional.  This is not a cynical viewpoint; I don't mean "broken".  I merely think it's a reflection of the inherently flawed and imperfect nature of human beings, and then when you put one messy and complex human in a room with other messy and complex humans, there are bound to be things which just look and feel less than perfect.  We aren't machines, after all, and humans (and the groups to which they belong) are, in my view, by their nature unpredictable.  If we want to get better at being kindly with each other, if we want to "do groups" better, then I think that we need to deploy some techniques that allow us to a)become aware of the messy dysfunction and then b)to work out a better way together.

Where do we start?  everywhere.

When do we start?  now.

How can we start?  sociometrically.

I'm a fan of things not being done to me.  I'm a fan of things not being done to people either.  I'm a fan of consent, wilful action and empowerment as a thing I do for myself.  I'm a believer in the potency of human connectedness.  Through 2014, I realised why I'm so attracted to sociometry as a way of working.   It is a human technology that is of, by and for the people.  It is the study of human relationships, but done by the people, not to the people.  If knowledge is power, then when the knowledge about a social network is available to those in the network, the power becomes invested much more in the people.  In the workplace, it is the study of a team, by the team, for the team.  It is a way for a team, a group, a community, an organisation to redefine and redesign itself.  Dangerous stuff huh?  Why give the people that power?  Surely, it is best held by someone more qualified, like a manager or a professional politician or a civil servant or a religious leader, right?


Well, in my eyes it's wrong.  Maybe it's my strong Scottish egalitarian streak, but I think we are in an age when the responsibility for us humans to get on with each other sits with each of us and that we stop abdicating this responsibility to others.  We stop waiting in frustration for those "in power" to befriend others on our behalf.  We also stop being bystanders in our own lives.  All over the place, in our workplaces, in our communities, in our neighbourhoods, we can uncover the things that we have in common and from there, work towards common goals.  After all, there is more that we have in common than what separates us; we just don't know it yet.  This is the power of sociometry.

"We are fundamentally unseparated from each other, from all beings and from the universe."

- Charles Eisenstein

What is sociometry?

Pioneer of sociometry, Dr. Jakob Moreno, defined it as "the inquiry into the evolution and organisation of groups and the position of individuals within them." He went on to describe it as "the ...science of group organization - it attacks the problem not from the outer structure of the group, the group surface, but from the inner structure. Sociometric explorations reveal the hidden structures that give a group its form: the alliances, the subgroups, the hidden beliefs, the forbidden agendas, the ideological agreements, the ‘stars’ of the show."

Sociometry aims to bring about greater spontaneity (willingness to act) and creativity within groups of people.  Greater spontaneity and creativity brings about greater group task effectiveness and satisfaction amongst its members.  Sociometry teaches us that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people trying to generate that outcome.  Research sociometry is an exploration of the social networks within which we exist.  This type of enquiry provides us with social maps and shows us how strongly people are connected to each other.  The full power of sociometry is realised when people have access to the information on such maps and are then able to make meaning of it themselves and to engage with each other about what lies behind their social choices.  Sociometry emphasises encounter.  Applied, or action, sociometry uses a range of methods to assist groups to uncover, develop and deepen their social connections.  So, in a workplace for example, using a question such as "Who would you go to if you needed advice on a work problem," applied sociometry invites people to make those choices overt and then to discuss what lies behind those choices:  Why did you choose this person?  Why did you choose me?  What does that information mean and what can we do with it so that we can get better at achieving our shared purpose?

What does that look like?  It is highly interactive.  People move about and talk with each other, and this is done in a way which is congruent with the purpose of the group.  Sometimes, it is an activity or set of activities, the overarching principle being that they assist people to see how they are connected (or not), so as to facilitate a deepening of purposeful connection.  Some of these activities may already be familiar to many people.  They can be an opportunity for a group to know and re-create itself.  One very simple example that springs to mind is a continuum.  A facilitator asks a simple question such as, "How long have you worked here?" and everyone stands on an imaginary line on the ground in order of length of service.  This has the potential to be more than just an "ice breaker" or "warm up exercise".  With a recent client, the purpose of the work was to assist a group of geographically dispersed managers develop their community of practice.  This exercise allowed everyone in the room to see who had served longest and, as such, who they might call on for specific knowledge and information.  The question came out of a desire within the group and as such, was more than just an "ice breaker" (which on many occasions comes out of the facilitator's needs); it was directly relevant to their (previously stated) purpose of discovering each other's strengths.

“If an egg is broken by outside force, life ends. If broken by inside force, life begins. Great things always begin from inside.”

- Jim Kwik

Sociometric exploration comes from the group; it's an inside job.  It's not the result of the CEO or the facilitator wanting to know some stuff about them; it's the result of the group wanting to know some stuff about itself.  The questions used to enquire about the group's structure are directly relevant and of interest to the group being studied.  The group then has immediate access to the information about "who is connected to whom and on what criteria" and "how strong (or weak) are the bonds within this group and its sub-groups" so that it may make decisions about whether and how to strengthen those bonds and deepen those connections.  Does it really matter that the social mapping comes out of the group's needs?  It does to me.  It also matters to lots of people who want to have greater agency in their lives and who want to be able to have more input into decisions which affect them.  As I see it, "being done to" is not part of the future of work nor the healthy future of the planet.  Perhaps sociometry is a glimpse into a future of work which is for the people and by the people.  Authentic engagement will come about not because people have been "gamed" into it, but because of an act of will.  Moreno felt that an exploration of a group's structure and dynamics was sociometric if each person felt that the exercise was for his or her own benefit, that "it is an opportunity for him (or her) to become an active agent in matters concerning his (or her) life situation."

As I said earlier, the key emphasis in sociometry is encounter.  The data is important, of course, but sociometry is not a research project.  Sociometry is about people interacting and engaging with each other about the data, so that their relationships deepen and become more authentic.  Among other things, this can facilitate

  • resolution of conflict
  • more effective problem solving
  • greater collaboration and cooperation
  • increased novelty and creativity within teams and groups
  • greater kindness and conviviality between and amongst people

Zerka Moreno, his widow, who carried on his work after his death, wrote "When the group members realise that the investigation is meant to improve their relationships and interaction with others and find their choices respected and acted upon, the level of the group’s morale is greatly enhanced, co-operation insured and cohesion improved."

"Blues is what happens between the notes."

- BB King

As a corollary, I'd suggest that meetings are what happens between people.  I know that sounds kind of obvious, but what I intend by that is that good, satisfying, productive meetings at work are what happens when people encounter each other; when a meeting is more than people just taking turns to talk at each other.  JL Moreno described "meeting" as more than a vague interpersonal relation.  He wrote that "it means that two or or more actors meet, but not only to face one another, but to live and experience each other, as actors each in their own right, not like a 'professional' contrived meeting,....but a meeting of two people."  He goes on to say that "only people who meet one another can form a natural group and start an actual society of human beings."  What if our workplaces were more than just places we did some stuff and then picked up a paycheque, but they were societies of humans coming together to really achieve something together?  What if our teams were more than just a bunch of people with some job descriptions doing stuff?  What if meetings were, as Frederic Laloux described, "something productive and uplifting, where we spoke from our hearts and not from our egos"?  What if (and here's where my wild imagination really kicks in) meetings were things that we looked forward to, because not only did we come away from them with a sense of achievement and good work done, but we also enjoyed the purposeful encounters with each other, knowing that we had progressed the life of the group?

How can sociometry translate into the workplace?  

When I see work practices come in line with the sociometric principle of "not being done to", I see greater engagement.  I recall a beautiful story about the design of an office that I feel is deeply sociometric.  The design process incorporated principles of autonomy and participation, inviting those who were to use the office to be its designers. The people who worked there made the decisions about meeting spaces, storage spaces, social spaces, privacy spaces, colours, lighting, furniture.  Teams of salespeople, support people and supervisors worked closely with the interior designers to craft a space that suited their needs.  The space proved to work well and cost 20% less than usual for that number of people in that location.  The interesting thing about the story is what happened next.  Head office believed that this was the "office of the future" and tried to copy to same design across its many locations.  The result was patchy: some compliance, some resistance.  What head office had missed was that the innovation was not the actual design of the office, but the way it came about.  There, I believe, is the opportunity for sociometry at work:  to allow people the opportunity to form into a society and from there, to make more decisions about what affects them.

Does sociometry matter?  

To my mind, absolutely.  Much is written about self-awareness and relationship capabilities and these are often called "soft skills".  I think they are the hard skills of the 21st century.  In our workplaces, our communities and between nations and peoples, I believe that greater knowing of each other will be a key to unlocking that kindness of which Carl Sagan spoke.  When we put our efforts into ironing out some of our "dysfunctions" and really commit ourselves to being alongside each other, despite what we feel separates us, we might view the project of sharing the planet together as one which belongs to all of us.