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Using employee surveys to measure social capital in your organisation

Are you already measuring social capital through your employee satisfaction survey without knowing it?

Many of the questions we typically ask in employee satisfaction surveys actually reveal a lot about our organisation’s social capital.

A simple view of social capital is the extent of organisational connectedness – how many people know each other and how well. We sometimes ask about connectedness in employee surveys, but social capital is much more than networks. It also encompasses cognitive factors such as belonging, trust and a range of norms that influence behaviour.

These cognitive factors are mere sentiments. They are what employees think and feel, and what they believe. They are about the organisational culture, and include factors such as supportiveness, openness, trust, empowerment, respect and value. Many of these factors are already being measured in our employee satisfaction survey.

Many of these factors are already being measured in our employee satisfaction survey.

For example common questions such as “Do you feel valued at work?” or “Do you believe the leadership team takes your feedback seriously?” tell us a lot about our social capital.

If you’re one of the over 90% of businesses that use some type of employee satisfaction or engagement survey you may like to take another look at your survey. It’s quite likely you’re asking questions that give you information about the social capital in your organisation.

Can we take a fresh look at our employee survey and find social capital?

Yes, potentially, depending on what questions you ask. But this is almost certainly not the whole social capital picture.

Do you want to monitor your organisation’s social capital?

Considering the importance of social capital I would say yes. We want to measure and monitor organisational social capital and we want to improve it as well. More on that later.

Every employee survey is different so this is not a one-size-fits-all guide to measuring social capital from your current survey. You may need to change your survey to capture different aspects of social capital.

You may not want to change your survey depending on how long you have been tracking change in your organisation. But you could add to your existing survey. Or it may not be important to keep the survey the same for historic comparison, especially since this type of data is subjective so doesn’t stand up well to rigorous comparative analysis.

How do we measure social capital?

Social capital is multidimensional and we can gather information about each dimension. The three main dimensions are structural, relational and cognitive.

Employee surveys mostly tell us about the cognitive dimension of social capital

Structural dimensions are elements of social structure that create opportunities for the social realisation of productive ends. Relational dimensions are based on the characteristics of social relationships between individuals and is commonly described as including trust and trustworthiness. Cognitive dimensions include shared norms, values, attitudes, and beliefs, predisposes people towards mutually beneficial collective action.

Your employee survey may give you information about the cognitive dimension but it’s less likely to shed any light on the structural and relational dimensions, unless you ask about trust.

Ironically most social capital measurement instruments for organisations are not very good at capturing information about the cognitive dimension. So there may be an opportunity to boost the quality of your social capital measurement with data from your employee survey.

Read more about measuring social capital in this guide.

Do the numbers really mean anything?

Surveys produce data which yield scores, and many leaders are tempted to use the score for improvement goals. But this misses the point of the survey completely since the purpose is to listen to employees, identify strengths and opportunities for improvement and discuss what actions need to be put in place to drive these improvements.

Can your employee survey improve your organisational social capital?

Yes. The questions you ask and the way you ask them can positively influence organisational social capital (or negatively if you get it wrong). The questions focus people’s attention on what is important and strengthen their resolve to do things differently.

For example a question such as:

Do you feel confident to openly discuss problems you encounter in your work with your colleagues?

This question can help people to remember the importance of problem solving with colleagues that helps the organisation learn and improve practice. They are then more likely to engage in this productive behavior, especially if it is stated in organisational policy and reinforced by leaders.

Be careful of existing negative cultures

You must be careful though. If there is a negative culture in your organisation where people don’t feel safe to discuss problems then this question can reinforce that fear and discourage people from the behavior.

I hope you take a look at your employee survey and see what information you have about social capital in your organisation.

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