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5 ways leaders can build social capital

by Maya Wettenhall

Aerial shot of two people having coffee

How is a workplace relationship like a marriage? Should leaders leave their emotions at the door? Why does opening up to others lead to incredible work? Learn how to build social capital – a soft skill with a very hard edge.

When Six Degrees Executive’s The Future of Leadership research revealed a significant gap in authentic leadership skills, we worked with Tom Harkin, CEO of Tomorrow Architects, to develop solutions that will help drive transformational leadership.

One of the key themes Harkin presented at the recent Closing the Leadership Gap event in Melbourne was what he called “building social capital”. Social capital is the invisible web that binds people together, enabling us to grow resilience, inspire others, find a way through disagreements and create an atmosphere where team members feel safe to disagree. In essence, social capital comes down to one word: trust. 

Wondering how to get started? Use the following five tips to embrace this aspect of modern leadership and build social capital in your team. 

1. Move beyond the honeymoon phase

“You can’t have a marriage if you can’t have an argument”, says Harkin. Just like in a marriage, leaders who wish to really know their teams need to move beyond the honeymoon phase into the real relationship. This involves understanding each other’s faults, being able to withstand an argument, knowing when to give in, accommodating other viewpoints, and collaborating to find a way through.

  • Do slow down the conversation pace and take the time to have genuine conversations with others.
  • Don’t allow your relationships to tick along at the superficial (or “honeymoon”) level for months on end. Take a risk and open up to build social capital.

2. Show up human

If a leader isn’t capable of showing up human and opening themselves up to others, it simply isn’t possible to create genuine social capital in your team. Don’t make the mistake of pretending to be someone you’re not because that’s what you believe leaders should do. Harkin warns that humans have an innate ability to register authenticity, and most people know a fake when they see it. 

  • Do bring your authentic self to work – be the very same person you are in your personal life.
  • Don’t leave your emotions (and humanity) at the door when you arrive at work.

3. Grow reciprocity

If authentic leaders open up by incrementally sharing more of who they are, others will respond by doing the same. This reciprocal intimacy (a hard word to hear in a corporate environment) builds and strengthens the invisible webs that bind us together. Although social capital is seen as a soft skill, it has a very hard edge to it because that person will go further for you than they would for other people with whom they have no social capital.  

  • Do go first and take a risk in opening up to inspire reciprocity in others.
  • Don’t ask “how are you?” if you aren’t prepared to hear anything but the standard answer.

4. Graduate to psychological safety

Social capital is the cornerstone on which psychological safety rests. This refers to the creation of an environment where people can say things that create discomfort or tension, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be shut out of the relationship as a result. The build-up of social capital boosts resilience in these uncomfortable situations, allowing the team to move beyond constructive disagreement and do incredible work as a result.

  • Do learn to become comfortable when dealing with emotion.
  • Don’t try to intervene and shut down tense or uncomfortable conversations.

5. Start today

Harkin comments that we often handball the creation of social capital to longevity, with the assumption that people who work together for a long time will inevitably open up to each other. But social capital needn’t take time if you have both the intent and the courage to integrate it into your team. 

  • Do give people the tools to build social capital incrementally.
  • Don’t leave the creation of social capital to Friday night drinks and other social events.

Talk to Maya Wettenhall to find the right type of leadership for your organisation’s future.