In Part 1 of our Hidden Figures blog series, we discussed the leadership lessons within the film. In Part 2, we explored the concept of social capital in the movie —and the workplace in general. Here in this edition of Your Leadership Coach at the Movies, we examine the leadership lessons in cultural capital from Hidden Figures.

Cultural capital consists of the knowledge, behaviors, and skills that we use to demonstrate our social standing. In addition, other indicators of social standing can add or subtract from our cultural capital such as: race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and age.

This type of capital changes based on our environment. The cultural capital of a middle schooler may center around the knowledge of the newest Snapchat filters, while an Ivy League degree can affect a person’s cultural capital in the business world. In some countries, a person’s accent can infer where they grew up, their schooling, and their economic standing.

Understanding how cultural capital comes into play can help you be a better leader. Consider these aspects of it.

Leaders Can Help Employees Realize Their Potential

In Hidden Figures, the engineer Karl Zielinski encouraged Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) to go back to school to become an engineer. They both understood that as a black woman, she lacked the cultural capital to pursue that goal. But he saw her potential. He encouraged and mentored her throughout the process. She overcame her husband’s hesitations and stood before a judge and asked him to allow her to continue her education. She broke new ground and succeeded as a NASA engineer.

The Takeaway:

As leaders and employees, being aware of cultural capital allows us to question why something is the way it is. Karl understood Mary’s mind was as good, or better, than the white, male engineers that worked for him. He knew that the reason she wasn’t an engineer wasn’t because of her ability, but because of her position within society – her lack of cultural capital.

Education Increases Cultural Capital

Organizations that pay for their employees’ schooling can greatly contribute to enhancing cultural capital for them. Business don’t have to necessarily foot the bill for advanced degrees. Even smaller investments like one-off continuing educations classes, seminars, networking events, and conferences can help expose employees to different people, ideas, and tactics that can enhance cultural capital.

In Hidden Figures, Octavia Spencer’s character teaches herself how to code NASA’s new IBM computer. She didn’t have access to classes, but she did have a library card and got a book on the subject. Not only that, but she also saw the value for her team and taught them coding as she taught herself.

In the end, when the invention of computers eliminated their jobs these human computers became coders.

The Takeaway:

Think about opportunities that are already available to you and your staff that can build cultural capital. If there aren’t many, brainstorm ways your organization can offer more. Even providing subscriptions or access to industry publications can be a deposit in employees’ cultural capital bank.

You Can Impart Cultural Capital on Others

Many executives close deals on a golf course, yet someone who lacks cultural capital may not know how to play the sport or be able to afford lessons.

At a business dinner, a person can show their lack of cultural capital by not knowing how to eat a certain type of food, like escargot, or knowing which fork is for the salad. These seemingly small things that do not affect a person’s ability to do their job, can still make them appear to be less competent or skilled in some settings.

The Takeaway:

Consider how you can mentor someone who doesn’t have the same skills or access that you have. Not all aspects of cultural capital are teachable, but some can be.

How can your organization improve cultural capital for your leaders and employees? Now that you know about cultural capital, do you think you’ve overlooked team members’ potential because of it?


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