The Benefits of Social Capital in the Workplace
September 17, 2009 by Joyce Richman
When Harvard University professor Robert Putnam authored the book “Bowling Alone” in 2000, he wrote that social capital (the collective value of all social networks) had seriously declined, that we weren’t visiting as much, joining as much, gathering as often at our churches, lodges, PTA’s and community socials. As a result, we weren’t as trusting, sharing, or cooperating.
Several weeks ago his concerns were echoed in national surveys that sounded the same notes of concern: that Americans are increasingly isolated, one from the other. We have fewer people in our lives with whom we share our knowledge and ourselves.
Why should we care? There are well- documented studies that describe what happens when we’re seriously “Home Alone”; there’s more crime, less charity, more anger, and more people dying of social isolation. What is the impact of social capital in the workplace and who’s working to enhance it? Front line managers who attract and retain talent and excel at turning that talent into performance.
What do great managers have in common? That’s what the Gallup Organization wanted to know, so they launched a 21- year research project in which 80,000 managers from 400 companies were surveyed/interviewed to determine just that.
In “First, Break All the Rules”, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman reported the project’s results and described 12 core elements essential to attracting, focusing, and keeping the most talented employees. All twelve involved social capital (trust, reciprocity, learning what we need to know, and creation of a we mentality): I know what is expected of me at work; I have what I need to do my work; I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day; In the last seven days I have received recognition or praise for doing good work; My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person; There is someone at work who encourages my development; At work my opinions seem to count; The mission /purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important; My co-workers are committed to doing quality work; I have a best friend at work; In the last six months someone at work has talked to me about my progress; This last year I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.
The best managers consistently emphasize the benefits of social capital: trust, give and take, information flow, and cooperation. They select the right person for talent, not just experience, intelligence or determination; they set expectations by defining the right outcomes, not the right steps; they motivate by focusing on strengths, not weaknesses; and develop, by helping the person find the right fit, not just the next rung on the ladder.
Does social capital benefit the bottom line? Fortune Magazine annually highlights 100 Best Companies to Work For; companies that consistently reinforce the elements of social capital that result in employee commitment and loyalty and translate to increased employee productivity. According to Fortune, for the past ten years the average annual shareholder return of these publicly traded firms has been 50% higher than the S&P 500.
When employee climate surveys ask what employees want most and get least the typical response is “work-life balance”; time to create, maintain or enhance relationships with family and friends, to be part of and contribute to community. Until that time comes (which may not happen if they’re working two and more jobs just to stay financially afloat) they’ll seek social connection in the workplace. If they can’t find it there they’ll either change jobs until they do or disconnect. It shouldn’t take social scientists or the greatest managers to tell us what happens next.
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