As an HR professional, you already know the importance of human capital in the workplace. You may have even started to see the shift of referring to human resources as human capital management. Human capital is undoubtedly important, but there’s an even more important “capital” that might not be on your radar: social capital.
Social capital can be defined very simply as the resources embedded in relationships. When you find a rockstar candidate for a position because of a recommendation from a friend, that reference is your social capital. When an employee is working on a challenging project and seeks expertise from an industry veteran he knows, that advice is his social capital. When an executive scores a meeting with a coveted customer because she used to work with someone who sits on their board, that introduction is her social capital. There is no question that the social capital of your employees can be a powerful corporate asset.
The academic literature takes this insight one step further. For example, Tom Schuller of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) differentiates between social capital that results from bonding relationships (links between people with similar characteristics within a community) and bridging relationships (links between people who are different outside a community). He poses that the right balance between these two types of relationships leads to a confident, creative and enduring community. Just replace the word “community” with “team” in the sentences above, and you’ll start seeing that our efforts to promote trust and diversity in the workplace are directly related to social capital.
What can HR professionals do to consciously cultivate social capital in the workplace? Here are a few concrete ideas that you can implement immediately.
1. Consider relationship-building aptitude during the hiring process. Employees who excel at cultivating their networks have the most potential for contributing to an organization rich in social capital resources.
Here are some simple questions you can incorporate into your interview process to assess candidates’ potential: What is your process for cultivating relationships in your network? Who is your most valued relationship as it relates to your career and why? When is the last time you reached out to someone in your network for help on an important task, and how did you do it? Start with questions like these, and then dig deeper to explore how candidates would mobilize resources within their networks to solve problems they encounter in the workplace.
2. Establish policies that reward knowledge sharing. The workplace can become competitive as employees strive to prove their excellence and climb the corporate ladder. A little competition is good, but too much can stifle productivity. Even if team members trust each other, those relationships cannot bear fruit if employees see their coworkers’ success as a threat. Reward employees for helping their coworkers achieve a successful outcome and allow employees to log hours spent helping so they don’t fear retaliation for taking time away from their own projects. Employee recognition software is a great first step toward moving your corporate culture in this direction.
3. Promote bridging relationships inside and outside the organization. Good managers cultivate a tight-knit team with high levels of trust. But sometimes those managers forget to cultivate relationships outside the team. Perhaps you’ve seen this play out in the scenario where the marketing department rolls out a new piece of software, but doesn’t think to get feedback from the IT team early on in the vetting process. If even just one person in marketing had a trusted relationship with someone in IT, their connection would likely ensure a more successful launch. Remind managers of the importance of fostering cognitive diversity with ideas from outside of the team, because diversity shouldn’t end after the hiring process.
Social capital may not be an asset on your company’s balance sheet — yet. But as an HR professional, you can ensure that your employees’ relationships are cultivated to their fullest potential. What is your organization doing to develop social capital?