25 Apr 2017

Career advice for the modern age – build your social capital

An essential job requirement for just about any career in the 21st century is social capital. But few people will tell you. Probably because few people are consciously aware that social capital has become essential for organisational success. Perhaps it always has been, but it’s true now more than ever.

With increasing specialisation people know a lot about their own narrow area of expertise. So collectively an organisation knows everything that they need to know. But only if the people in the organisation work together. They need to connect and collaborate. They need to trust each other, and foster a culture of sharing and giving.

Otherwise it’s just a collection of disparate parts that work inefficiently together, with waste and redundancy.

They need to know each other and also have connections outside of the organisation as well. Not every problem can be solved internally. Sometimes external expertise is required.

Most people understand this intuitively.

Highly successful people spend time building social relationships.

These people tend to me more productive and thus more valued by their organisation. They tend to be promoted more rapidly.

I’m a guru in my field, do I really need social capital? Yes.

In the modern context of increasing complexity and information overload it can be tempting to focus on becoming an expert, rather than spending time building relationships and collaborating.

Your skills and experience is your human capital. It is yours and you take it with you. When you obtain a qualification, new knowledge, or new skills you are improving your human capital.

But you’re not unique in the modern market of labour abundance.

There are lots of other people with that qualification, or those skills. So what separates you from everyone else who may get the job over you is your social relationships, ie your social capital. It’s the people you know and the way you go about working with others. It’s how much and how often you give to or help others.

Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.

The Godfather (1972)

Is my social capital transferable? Yes, to a limited extent.

There are two main aspects to social capital for your organisation: internal and external. The internal relationships are the most important in an organisational context since this allows you to get things done. When you change organisations these relationships don’t have the same value in your new workplace.

For example in your previous job you had a great working relationship with your financial controller. You could quickly get the funds required to do your job efficiently. When you change organisations you don’t lose that relationship, but it can no longer help you get funding approval. In your new role you would need to build a new relationship with the appropriate person in your new organisation.

But social capital is still transferable in some respects.

You may have had a good working relationship with a colleague who is a soil scientist, who you could still call for advice.

The most important thing is your approach to working with others and spending time getting to know other people in your workplace. This is transferable.

Is talking to people really necessary in the age of social media? Yes.

Technology is great for helping to build and maintain social relationships. It decreases the time/distance cost and allows us to interact more with more people.

But it still takes time and still requires us to make social interactions and giving a priority.

We also need to consider the quality of our social relationships. It’s easy to say no to a Twitter follower. It’s easy to ignore a request from a LinkedIn connection. We’re much more likely to help people who we know personally. Who we have had coffee with and shared experiences. Who have helped you previously, even if it’s just a recommendation for a good mechanic or hairdresser.

Advice for improving your social capital

Talk Spend time talking to people and getting to know them and what they do. But more than that, get to know their background, interests, beliefs and values. In our busy lives we need to give priority to social interactions that we may not perceive as having as much value as getting a report finished. You should go to Friday afternoon drinks, the weekend work BBQ, the long morning teas and make a point of inviting colleagues to interact. This may mean working less but the long term benefits are worth it.

Connect Build and reinforce social relationships with repeat interactions over time. This is where technology can really help. Remember it’s the quality of the relationship, not just the people you know. Over time and repeat interactions our social relationships strengthen and deepen.

Give Giving is really the key to social capital. It builds trust and respect, and a willingness to give to you in future. Giving can take the form of sharing information, giving or loaning equipment or money, doing something for someone, and giving your time to listen or to drive someone somewhere. Giving can take many forms, and often the cost of the “gift” is much less than the value to the recipient. For example giving someone directions could take just a few seconds, but save the recipient minutes or even hours of trying to find their way.

Value It’s easy to go about our busy lives without valuing the knowledge and expertise of other people around us. We may ignore someone because they just deliver the mail. But that person may have knowledge and skills that we don’t have. It’s easy to assume that we are more knowledgeable and that we don’t need other people’s expertise. But that is not valuing the unique set of skills and experience that everyone has. One day you may need someone who speaks Lithuanian and it may be the person in the mailroom that could have helped you.

Don’t be instrumental Don’t give expecting something in return. Don’t talk to someone just to get some benefit. Basically don’t be selfish. We build our social capital when we give with no immediate prospect of the favour being returned. With no expectation. We don’t need to state it. It’s not a contract. When you do it right the recipients of your generosity will want to return the favour. They will respect and trust you. So don’t be a dick. Just give and connect and share.

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