Better Bossing: Social Capital
Most interactions require a level of trust — and social capital is one way of understanding the “earned trust” that can exist between people.
This is part of my “better bossing” blog series — new posts will appear on my website, so please sign up for updates for new content in this series.
I think of social capital as the currency of influence and co-operation that is shared between people. It’s a motivating force that enables or impedes social interactions — so it affects how people think and feel about duty, interconnectedness, reciprocity, discretionary effort, motivation, co-operation and competition (as well as lots of other beliefs and behaviours connected to the ways individuals relate to each other). It’s a belief — a fundamental assumption. Just as our money states that it’s a “promise to pay the bearer,” social capital is the currency by which we (mostly subconsciously) think about the “promises” of co-operation we make between individuals.
Social capital is the currency of influence and co-operation that is shared between people
Social capital is something that, as a boss, you can earn, accrue and spend. We can build social capital with the teams we lead and work with day to day. We can also think about the social capital that we’ve built with peers and individuals outside of our immediate sphere of control. And we can consider how to transfer our social capital to those we manage, to make their lives easier and them more effective.
There are three key concepts that we can use to help us identify where and how we might earn, store and spend social capital to make us and our teams more effective.
Bonding focuses our attention on the sense of connectedness between individuals within an established or emerging group. I’ve written about and stressed the importance of trust in brilliant bossing. Trust is the foundation of well-bonded relationships. Building relationships of trust increases the amount of information shared between individuals, and broadens the type of information that people are willing to share. This makes it easier to spot opportunities and overcome obstacles. Bonding creates an openness within groups and individuals, so I think about how the JoHari window encourages an openness in communication, pushing back boundaries to expand the information that individuals share.
As a boss we usually have a responsibility for the social capital within the teams we lead — the connections and sense of “shared responsibility” held between members. This is what bonding is about. When we have low levels of social capital within a group, or disproportionate amounts and an imbalance between the connectedness of team members (unequal relationships), individuals and the group as a whole can suffer.
We can strengthen the bonds within a team by modelling what well-bonded relationships looks like, and encouraging open, honest relationships. Holding team members to account to the same standards can also lay the foundations for bonded relationships between team members — it ensures a level of mutual, interconnected commitment. There can still be relationships with different degrees of power or authority — but these should be consistent and based on open standards and expectations. And there should always be basic standards of respect between members.
There are dangers in the way some people initiate bonding. Bad bosses can sometimes be reliant on “othering” and tribalism. While this might result in a well-bonded, tight-knit team, it’s at the expense of other individuals and groups outside of the team. This can make it harder to welcome new members into a team. It can lead to and encourage “group think” which narrows the range of considered options and approaches to work. It can also reinforce organisational silos and can diminish co-operation and collaboration between groups. This type of ‘network closure’ can impact the effectiveness of the team. It’s like when a country unilaterally imposes harsh import tariffs. The “protectionism” is likely to strengthen internal relationships but at the expense of missed opportunities. This is a danger. Social capital is equally dependent on the connections between and across groups as it is the connections within them — we see this in the next factor, bridging.
Bridging creates social capital by forming connections across groups, outside of the primary team or social setting you operate in. It’s incredibly valuable, as it creates and establishes sources of new ideas, skills and information into a group.
I’ve touched on the danger of highly bonded teams whose internal connections make joining the team more difficult. Bridging often requires conscious effort to form and maintain the connections. I think of this as being like the neural pathways that we form through the repetition of an action and through conscious practice. It takes effort to form a relationship and connection, and then it might require periodic maintenance to maintain it. Bonding is a day-to-day, minute-to-minute activity. Bridging likely occurs on a less regular basis.
Bridging is most effectively achieved through kindness, curiosity and generosity. That might sound like a Sesame Street summing up. But the easiest way to initiate a relationship is to invoke reciprocity. Discovering how you can help other people and then doing it, especially at a time where there’s little direct benefit to you is a simple way of bridging and “banking” social capital. You can either justify this to yourself as a “paying forward” and a wise investment strategy or maintain your motivation because it’s a kinder, more generous way of being — and it usually makes life richer and easier for you in the long run too.
Bridging works most effectively when there is mutual benefit in the relationship. So you might need to be careful if you’re surrounded by the selfish or sociopathic who only want to take. But it’s usually best to assume good intent and be willing to listen and explore what mutual benefits might be realised through collaboration and bridging.
Brokering is a specific form of bridging. It sees you using your network and connections to form a bridge for someone else. It most often involves making introductions, acting as a nexus to extend or connect social networks. We’ve all met people with extensive networks who seem to know everyone. They’ve accrued social capital through a rich network of relationships and are happy to share and expand this by brokering new relationships. While this strategy does require effort and energy, it can increase our influence within an organisation.
As bosses we can use brokering in two ways:
- We can “broker” the relationships within our teams. By thinking about the way we structure, organise and assign work we can increase the bonding within the group or team.
- We can also think about the formal power relationships within our organisation and actively work to connect the people we lead and manage to our connections with more formal power than they have (higher in the hierarchy). [vertical brokering]
When we think about power and relationships within teams and organisation, even if the organisation is relatively flat, there are often power relationships at play. Social capital frames interactions within the context of transactions — we’re making an exchange in the way we form and maintain relationships through this invisible currency we’ve labelled “social capital”. In highly hierarchical relationships it can feel like there are multiple “currencies” — one for each layer in the hierarchy. A good boss will think about this and try to engineer ways for people to form connections vertically, not just horizontally in the organisation. This will result in richer networks for the people we lead and manage.
Where we can lend our credibility to the people we manage, we create opportunities for them to build credibility and social capital of their own. This can be challenging for some bosses who want to maintain more control or who are nervous about undermining their own reputation because of a relationship between people they’ve introduced. There’s no doubt that there are risks as well as rewards in brokering relationships. But as bosses, it’s usually our responsibility to encourage and support progression for the people we manage, and brokering relationships to help others accrue social capital is one way we can do this.
Building and maintaining social capital
We might argue that social capital “extends capitalism into friendship”. Imagining an invisible currency that you can horde, invest and spend to turn the richness of human interactions into a simple mathematical (sometimes cynical) transaction can feel problematic. I understand that view, and it highlights a danger of reducing relationships to a simple consideration of “how does this affect the bottom line of my social capital account.” There are dangers and benefits to viewing relationships and interactions through the lens of social capital. But it gives us another language and set of ideas to evaluate our performance as a boss — so I think these are useful concepts.
Social capital concepts can help us identify traps of bad bossing we might fall into. It might help us spot patterns of favouritism — where we invest in some relationships at the expense of others. It can help us analyse the interactions within and between groups. It can help us consider relationships of dependence. And help us consider relationships of dependence or the fragility of our support or delivery network. It can make us more reflective, helping us to analyse the formal relationships of reliance and dependence and those more reliant on informal relationships — and what this might mean for the organisational design of the teams and structures we operate in.
“Social capital” is one way of understanding the invisible and implicit assumptions that exist when people interact. It’s therefore a useful set of concepts to consider as we reflect on how we work with others and how, as bosses we create the contexts in which people interact and co-operate at work.