In Part 1 of our Hidden Figures blog series, we discussed some of the leadership lessons within the film. We can learn about leadership from the strength of the characters, as well as from the social and cultural capital at play. In this post, we’re discussing the concept of social capital in the workplace.

Unlike the old adage, “You and you alone are responsible for your success,” the concept of social capital is that your community and connections can help propel you to greatness. The term was coined in the 1970s by French sociologist Pierre Bordieu. Even if you’ve never heard of the theory, it’s easy to see how relationships have had a key role in your work life.

Keep these points in mind to maximize social capital for yourself and your team.

Nurture Relationships for Success

Throughout Hidden Figures, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) constantly made her case for becoming a supervisor to her boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Dorothy was asking for help. Vivian refused—insisting that promoting her or speaking to the higher-ups on her behalf was out of the question. Later in the film Dorothy is promoted (no thanks to Vivian). Vivian then has to reach out to Dorothy for help. Note the elephant in the room. Dorothy does help Vivian because she understands her need and in doing so creates goodwill. She created social capital.

The Takeaway

Social capital is not a fixed pie. It can be created. Being an advocate for deserving staff members helps them, but also creates social connections. These connections can also help you and your team down the road. It would have been much easier for Vivian to ask Dorothy for help, if she had built a relationship with her before, by at least attempting to help her succeed. These relationships, built one person at a time, create our social network. That network is capital that can be spent. It can be spent on yourself or even on others—creating even more capital. Business is built on relationships. Treating everyone with care and respect isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s good business.

It’s Not Only About What You Know, But Also Who You Know and What They Think of You

There are many aspects of success that are out of our control – how much money we start with, the way we look, the family we were born into. However we have 100% control over how we treat others. We’ve all heard rags-to-riches stories of people who start out in the mail room and work their way up to CEO. Often, it’s assumed that their rise to the top was from hard work alone, but social capital is at play too. If someone in an entry-level position is pleasant and easy to be around, others are more likely to give him/her a chance when a big break comes along.

The Takeaway

Be a team player. Help others. Social capital is the karma of the business world. As a leader, it’s important to help staff members to create and foster relationships as well. If you head up a virtual team or have employees that work from home, consider using video calls to build rapport between individuals. Try to give all team members opportunities for face time with the higher-ups.

Be Aware of How Organizational Structure Impacts the Importance of Social Capital

If a person does their work well, they will likely be eligible for promotions or roles on high-profile projects. In a matrix model, employees may report to multiple people. In organizations that use this model, social capital may become more important than the work itself. The relationships you have with the people you report to or who report to you, can overshadow the quality of the work.

As Sadhana Pasricha says in her Tedx Talk, the leader’s job is to “design the right structure and create a culture so the right behavior patterns emerge. Then the leader’s real job is to invest and nurture the relationships and harness the power of relationships for success.”

The Takeaway

Awareness is the key.  Think about how important social capital is in your organization. Is reliance on social capital in your organization empowering or burdening your teams? Has social capital turned the ugly corner into bureaucracy?  Do you want it to have that level of importance? What can be done to enhance or minimize it for your team?

How has social capital helped you in your career? What can you do to help your staff invest in this type of currency?


Join us for the final installment of this series next week, when we discuss cultural capital.