Understanding social capital at work

Social Capital At Work

I’ve written a little about these types of ideas before, like the power of friends at work or how to use social capital for better networking or even how leadership can be drastically improved if people just walk around and talk to other people. Here’s something new, courtesy of Margaret Heffernan:

Social capital develops from people spending time together. I learned this when I was running my first software company. I hired lots of brilliant people, but felt that there was something wrong. I realized that everybody was so focused on their own work and tasks, that they didn’t know anything about the person sitting next to them. So I decided, “Okay — Friday afternoons at 4 o’clock everybody’s going to get together and three people are going to stand up and tell us who they are and what matters to them.” At the time I thought it was hokey. Even now, this doesn’t feel like elevated management thinking. But it completely changed the game. You need that level of trust to have the freedom to think and to have the really good kind of argument from which the best ideas emerge.”

Big fan of this quote. It does feel hokey. At most companies, if you proposed something like this, people would groan and snicker to each other about corporate bullshit. But … and this is hugely important … it’s staggering to me how many people have jobs and really only understand what they do, their boss does, and maybe a few people on their team. They have no idea what most people do. I’ve bounced this idea off people and they’ve said, “Well, it’s not really my job to know what everyone does…”

Sure, I get that. It’s not, and ultimately you want to believe that you’re getting judged off a certain set of deliverables related to you and your work. The problem with that line of thinking is that almost nothing happens in a total vacuum, especially in workplace dynamics. You usually need to incorporate another team or another set of people to get something done. People love to talk about “owning a process” but I’d argue about 92 percent of successful work projects are less about who owns it, and more about how the different people who need to be interacting actually go and interact.

As such, social capital is tremendously important in a workplace … and it’s probably more important than it was even 10 years ago because business got a little more complex, more tech is at play, more companies are chasing new revenue streams, etc. You can’t know everything. But you need to know who does know, so that when you need something, you know where to go and who to ask.

The core problem sometimes can be this: we tend to think of work as a very individually-driven place, because ultimately, individuals are rewarded (promotions) and teams aren’t. That shifts the culture of work, oftentimes, to thinking less about social capital and more about making yourself stand out and focusing on your stuff. It’s not always very effective, though, to think this way. Working with others — even as a manager! — is a lot more productive.


Ted Bauer