Social Capital; 3 Steps to a High Performance Culture

The latest in leadership theory tells us a workplace built around a robust interpersonal network is critical to employee engagement, creativity and ultimately, to your company’s bottom line. As leaders, we may know this intuitively. But theory is one thing, while finding a workable alternative to the communication breakdowns commonly known to the modern workplace, quite another.

Across generations, work groups and job functions; Millennials aren’t sure how to communicate with Boomers, engineering doesn’t trust marketing enough to keep them in the loop on new developments, and we wonder why deadlines are missed and quality is inconsistent.

Social capital theory maintains high functioning interpersonal communications networks are critical to the health of an organization. It’s hard to disagree there. In fact, companies spend over $720 million each year in efforts designed to improve employee engagement.

However it’s become clear that open work space and team building events can only get you so far. Building social capital requires consistent idea exchange to keep people on the same page, sharing relevant information, avoiding duplication of efforts and producing great results.

Trust is the foundation

As we know, trust and cooperation are vital to the success of any organization. Developing this foundation is key to building social capital. Yet how can we foster social interaction in a group of people that aren’t all that social or extraverted to begin with? How do you address silos and miscommunication? And even if your organization is communicative and connected, how do you interject norms that promote coordination and cooperation over the individual competition that ultimately impedes organizational progress?

These questions have been plaguing managers longer than pointy haired boss jokes, while answers, on the contrary, remain elusive.

At least they have until now, when a combination of data and neurology have opened new horizons and identified new solutions.

For psychology geeks; People Analytics

New research using technology-driven data links the connection between social (in this case face to face) communication among coworkers and a variety of performance outcomes.

Leading MIT researcher Sandy Pentland’s work on the science of social connections in the workplace reveals that high performing teams show a specific pattern of communication in which all members contribute more or less equally.

Pentland and his team of researchers conducted two groundbreaking experiments using wearable devices, enabling them to track frequency and duration of communications among peers, (the content of each exchange remained anonymous to protect individual privacy).

Their findings, since corroborated by studies at Google, reveal that it’s not the teams with the most intelligent people, nor the most motivated that produce the greatest results, it’s those that foster the most inclusive, consistent communications among all members that ultimately prove the most successful in reaching performance goals.

Similar studies show that social capital equally increases when teams meet face to face with colleagues outside of their own groups as well.

One MIT case study focused on a US bank call center where productivity varied widely among teams. In an effort to reduce down-time, some managers had eliminated team coffee breaks, while others had not. Upon assessing the results, it turned out that the individuals who spent the most time interacting with peers also handled calls the fastest, and were therefore measurable more productive than those who stayed focused on the job.

When the research time prescribed team-wide coffee breaks and encouraged operators to share ideas, not just about work but about life in general, the lagging teams rapidly caught up. Profits rose by about $1.5 million company wide after the changes were implemented.

Notably, these case studies prioritized rich channels of communication, ideally in-person communications and video conferencing over phone or digital media for optimal results.

3 Steps to a High Performance Network

  1. Assess your Social Capital. Neither an exclusively networks-based nor an entirely norms-dependent measure is alone sufficient for assessing social capital.

The first part, the frequency and duration of communications, can be tracked either through data (transactions, not content), or obtained by surveying your team to determine how regularly people interact. 

This addresses the network/connection half of the equation. But the quality of the conversational norms in your organization is the other half.

A valid assessment needs to examine both communication patterns and communications norms in the organization to produce meaningful recommendations for improvement.

Questions like;

How frequently do employees interact with others one-on-one?

How often are these interactions with different and new people?

How frequently are they communicating between departments?” will help to determine communication patterns revealing the interpersonal data distribution on your organization.

The quality of the interactions may be apparent by the level of camaraderie, optimism and transparency in the workplace, but assessment to create a baseline for change is recommended to determine the level of trust and cooperation. How are people recognized? How is stress managed? How, and with whom, is information shared?

Answering these questions will give you a starting point from which to measure change and impact.


  1. Create the space for connection

Innovations leaders like Facebook and are built upon connection, so it’s no surprise that their huge, open space main headquarter buildings are entirely office-free. According to John Tenanes, director of global facilities for Facebook, the company’s headquarters “is infused with amenities and is meant to encourage social interactions and collaboration among employees.”

When your office space doesn’t offer such massive capacity, get creative. Create rules of engagement in your organization by inviting your employees to contribute their expectations and preferences for interacting with others. Share the outcomes of this conversation as a benchmark for good communication, as defined by them.

  • Communicate your vision throughout your organization.
  • Facilitate connection and model it; a coffee break or walk and talk with colleagues makes a great daily habit.
  • Suggest prioritizing face time over email whenever possible.


  1. Prioritize communicating for trust

According to Organizational Anthropologist Judith Glaser, moving conversation beyond simple transactional communication to a thoughts and feelings level is the foundation for developing the type of trust that leads to genuine connection.

Therefore, it’s not just frequency of interaction that forms a strong social network, it’s the trust that comes from of a culture focused on recognition and respect. This, as well is scientifically proven:

“When we feel that others respect and appreciate us, the mirror neurons located below the prefrontal cortex are activated, enabling us to identify with others and create a bridge of empathy with them. We activate our ability for bonding, collaborating, and experiencing high-point emotional moments, meaning that the levels of oxytocin are increasing as we interact. This influx of neurochemicals reinforces trust” Judith Glaser.

Whether you’re leading a workforce of 5 or 500, in today’s diverse workforce, communication is a challenge. Building social capital requires an environment supporting open communication on both the physical and cultural levels.

When we establish social norms that include optimizing opportunities for regular interaction and prioritizing trust-building communication we set the stage for the quality relationships and strong social capital that define the high-performance workplace.


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