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How to deepen relationships and build social capital that sticks.

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Discover the intangible yet invaluable benefits of workplace social capital, including trust, shared norms, and enhanced collaboration.
LAST UPDATED: June 17, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Organizational change is inevitable; to thrive, leaders must build social capital by identifying and quickly building relationships with key partners.
  • Workplace social capital is the intangible value derived from strong relationships, trust, and shared norms among colleagues.
  • Investing in social capital leads to higher job satisfaction, better outcomes, and career advancement. 
  • Building social capital requires genuine effort, patience, adaptability, and a collaborative mindset.

In today's ever-changing work environment, success hinges on more than technical skills and experience; emotional intelligence and soft skills are equally crucial.

That's not exactly news—we've explored it in a few ways at InsideOut roundtables over the last year. Yet we keep coming back to this because, fundamentally, we're talking about the human experience. And that's where social capital comes in.

If your professional relationships and networks are like the foundation of a house (you can't thrive without a solid one), then building and maintaining workplace social capital—the network of connections that facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing—is vital for your career growth. 

Makes sense on paper, but here's the wrench:

These days, organizational change is not merely a possibility; it's more or less the norm, especially in creative and tech industries. Teams undergo restructuring on a dime. New partners emerge and/or disappear. Executives shuffle roles more frequently than ever. So, in a world where organizational change is constant, how can you deepen relationships if everyone is a moving target? 

We brought InsideOut leaders together this spring to discuss why social capital is the glue you need to not just survive but excel in such a fluid environment. Read on for the good stuff.

What is workplace social capital?

Workplace social capital is the value derived from relationships, trust, and shared norms among colleagues. It's about interpersonal connections that enable people to collaborate effectively, share knowledge, and navigate workplace complexities together. This form of capital is intangible, but it profoundly shapes career trajectories and company success.

Social capital is rooted in trust: the trust your colleagues have in you and that you have in them. Building this trust requires conscious effort and time to understand others and learn about what motivates and inspires them. Trust pays dividends: the more trust you earn, the more social capital you'll build, and the greater resilience and staying power you'll gain in your career.

Why is building social capital important? 

Investing in workplace social capital goes beyond mere networking. It creates a supportive ecosystem that fosters professional growth and well-being for everyone involved. Here are some key reasons why social capital matters:

  • Enhanced collaboration: When you have strong relationships with your colleagues, collaboration becomes smoother and more efficient. You can rely on each other, share ideas openly, and work together toward common goals. This leads to higher productivity and better outcomes for the team. 
  • Career advancement: Building a robust network within your organization increases your visibility and opens doors to new opportunities. When people know and trust you, they're more likely to recommend you for new roles or projects, enhancing your professional reputation and career prospects.
  • Knowledge sharing: Social capital facilitates the free exchange of ideas and expertise across teams and departments. When colleagues trust each other, they're more willing to share their knowledge and insights, fostering innovation and continuous learning.
  • Job satisfaction: A supportive network of colleagues contributes to a positive work environment. When you feel connected and valued, you are more likely to enjoy your work and feel a sense of belonging and purpose. Social capital creates a level of safety and comfort that improves employee retention (people are more likely to stay and contribute).

How to build social capital that endures change

Building workplace social capital requires deliberate effort and a strategic approach. It doesn't happen overnight, especially when companies shift and change frequently. Here are some practical strategies from our discussion: 

Identify key colleagues and mentors 

Start by identifying colleagues and mentors who can play pivotal roles in your professional development. These might be seasoned professionals in your field, influential leaders within the company, or peers with complementary skills. Look at creative briefs and project documentation to identify decision-makers, who is involved in the work and how, and thus, who makes sense to approach.

Get to know people as individuals by asking questions and showing genuine interest in their experiences and perspectives. Remember that you don't know what you don't know—bring a learning mindset to your interactions and focus on listening. Understanding how others prefer to collaborate—whether asynchronously, in person, through monthly check-ins, walking meetings, or video calls—shows your flexibility and willingness to adapt, fostering trust and collaboration. Ask about this at the start!

Pro tip: Sometimes it's easier to avoid those who resist working with you rather than take time to find the right way to connect. However, the very social capital you need most is likely to come from those who aren't yet warm to you. Can you repair the trickier relationships? Yes! Hard, but absolutely doable, and necessary. 

Nurture mutually beneficial relationships

Cultivate relationships based on mutual benefit and trust. Here's how:

  • Offer support and collaboration: Seek out chances to collaborate with colleagues on meaningful projects. Be proactive in offering assistance or expertise without being asked. At the end of a project, ask, “Who else do you know who could benefit from my help?” and “How can I do better next time?” This extends your network and reinforces your eagerness to partner.
  • Earn trust and credibility: Demonstrate reliability and integrity in your world by delivering high-quality results. Honor your commitments and follow through on what you promise to build a reputation for dependability. Look to thought leadership—can you share a podcast or article about a topic someone cares about? A report with data they'd find useful?
  • Seek feedback and guidance: Be open to feedback and actively seek it out. Set up meetings with experienced colleagues or mentors to gain insights and guidance. Showing real interest in learning and growth, rather than just focusing on your to-do list, makes you approachable and respected. (*Hint: add “ask for feedback” to your to-do list so it becomes a habit.)
  • Participate actively: Engage in company workshops, social events, and team-building exercises. These moments offer easy opportunities to connect with colleagues on a personal level and deepen relationships beyond the work itself. Even connecting over shared interests and inspiration can significantly strengthen bonds—you don't have to share everything about your personal life.
  • Become a connector: Act as a bridge between different teams or departments. Facilitate introductions and promote cross-functional collaboration. Helping others connect shows you're paying attention to people's needs and are committed to the broader organization.

Stay adaptable and engaged

Workplace dynamics evolve over time, especially in our rapidly changing world. Some tips to remain adaptable and engaged:

  • Stay informed: Keep up with organizational changes, industry trends, and especially your colleagues' achievements—people feel valued through recognition. Make time to stay current so you can show up at the right moments, with the right information.
  • Contribute positively: Lead by being a positive influence. Offer encouragement and support to colleagues, and champion ideas rather than quickly dismissing them. Positivity is contagious and creates a supportive work environment.
  • Self-reflect: Acknowledge when you could have done better, even if it's easier to blame others for not doing their part. Recognize your role in relationships and consider how you can improve future interactions. Remember to be patient; we don't always gel with others immediately. Relationships take time to grow.

Leverage technology

Embrace tech to make it even easier to connect:

  • Utilize professional networks: Participate on professional networking platforms like LinkedIn. Share insights, congratulate colleagues on achievements, and show up in conversations. These platforms can help you maintain relationships with limited face-to-face interactions.
  • Virtual coffee: Schedule virtual coffee chats or informal meetings with colleagues, especially when working remotely. These casual hangouts are crucial for maintaining strong relationships; they often result in learning things about people that are missed in typical work interactions.

Sustain relationships

Building workplace social capital is a practice. To sustain your relationships and efforts:

  • Follow up: Schedule check-ins on your calendar or make it a routine to-do list item to follow up with colleagues and see how they're doing. Create a recurring chance to offer your support. Can you also proactively source and provide content to match people's challenges?
  • Express gratitude: A simple thank-you goes a long way to prove you care. Try a handwritten note or small token of appreciation that aligns with someone's interests. You can also give the gift of content by finding info to help solve a problem they face, or that provides inspiration in a meaningful way.
  • Be authentic: Be genuine in your interactions. Authenticity is foundational to building trust and lasting relationships. People can tell when you're being sincere (and when you're not).

Conclusion

Workplace social capital significantly impacts your career and happiness at work. By intentionally building and maintaining solid relationships within your organization, you don't just grow your network—you create a supportive ecosystem that fuels personal and team success.

Building social capital requires genuine effort, patience, adaptability, and a collaborative mindset. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Start implementing these strategies, and you'll reap the benefits of enduring relationships that can propel you forward, even when companies are in such flux. Investing in social capital at work is investing in yourself—and that's always worth it.

Why do we care? Our mission is to connect leaders to find solutions. If you're a senior design, experience, or creative operations leader of an in-house team at a high-profile brand and want to connect with others who share your unique challenges, let's talk. Our InsideOut community hosts small format roundtables to support the learning and growth of our members, and we're honored to facilitate those discussions.