Over the last century, the world of work has transformed from factories and steel mills to innovation centers and online collaboration sites. But businesses still think about talent management from the perspective of individual skills and productivity. This approach practically ignores the value of the relationships and interactions between employees that lead to productive results. It is just as important to track, train and focus on how a result is achieved as it is to focus on the result itself. That’s called social capital.
What Is Social Capital?
Social capital is the value of the relationships between people. It is an idea that explains why some people are more successful in the workplace than others, even when they have similar qualifications and skills. It’s made up of a range of things that affect people’s experiences, including trust, unconscious bias, empathy and allyship. Social capital is not about who does what. It’s about how people feel when they are working together. Positive emotions help teams work together effectively, and negative emotions can create unnecessary distractors and increase risk.
Social and psychological health can lead to innovation, productivity and better company performance. But businesses struggle with this, because they’re stuck on measuring traditional human capital management metrics like head count, demographics and turnover.
It’s one thing to recognize the value of social capital. It’s another to figure out how to improve it. How can training professionals help their employees work better in groups?
You Can’t Fix What You Don’t Measure
Just like other forms of capital, such as human or financial, the ability to build social capital is based on a set of competencies that can be developed through monitoring and practice. In a whitepaper released in September 2021, Emtrain unveiled a new management theory aimed at helping companies measure and improve organizational health by focusing on improving social capital.
This approach identifies 16 different social indicators that can help determine how well people are working together in groups. A few important ones are allyship, norms and practices and in-group/out-group dynamics. These and other indicators can promote social equity, pro-social behaviors and employee engagement.
Some of these indicators may sound tough to master. But the best way to gauge how a company is performing across a wide range of social capital indicators is to regularly pulse the opinions of employees on their experience with their managers, their coworkers and the company. To gauge learners’ experiences, show video examples of behaviors and tricky culture situations during training and ask learners about their own experiences navigating these situations.
This regular pulse check helps in a few ways. First, it alerts leaders to culture blind spots and points out issues they may not have even realized they had. Second, it sets benchmarks so that companies can compare how they fare with other healthy (or unhealthy) companies. Finally, it allows companies to follow up with employees once changes have been implemented to see if they are having the desired effect. This effort has shown real-world results.
For example, at a large U.S. manufacturing company, employee responses showed that in-group/out-group dynamics were a source of conflict, particularly between day shift and night shift workers. Based on their scorecard, leaders realized they needed to do a formal review of the working conditions for each shift and find ways to get representatives of each group working together to resolve as many issues as possible.
Another company — a global health sciences organization — scored low in power dynamics. That’s because employees felt that if they complained about bias, discrimination and harassment, management would not take their concerns seriously. Company leaders thought that the low number of complaints they were receiving was because the culture was healthy. Instead, it was because people distrusted management and feared retaliation. Based on this new information, leaders gained insight into several immediate actions they could take to address risk before situations escalated into costly claims, public reputational harm or, most importantly, unethical behavior.
Our Role as Training Professionals
Much of the “training industrial complex” focuses simply on ensuring that the required training has taken place. But as the #MeToo movement, and the social justice reckoning that stemmed from the Black Lives Matter protests show us, simply checking boxes to prove training has happened is not enough to drive behavior change and create equitable relationships and work environments.
Training leaders must help the C-suite and boards understand that many of the culture issues that companies face stem from poor social capital skills, which can lead to trouble working in groups. Too often, people leaders think of these issues as separate and unrelated — that diversity issues are separate from ethics issues, which are separate from inclusion and respect issues. The truth is they are all related.
It won’t be easy to move an organization from being me-focused to we-focused, to make a workplace pro-social. But with proper measurement, benchmarking and a commitment from leadership, this kind of behavior can be learned and lead to better productivity, reduced risk and equity for all.