A Human Touch: Building Social Capital in the Professional Sphere

It’s no secret that every company needs competent employees. Companies need big thinkers and hard workers with vision and ambition.

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It’s no secret that every company needs competent employees. Companies need big thinkers and hard workers with vision and ambition. They need educated, qualified, and intelligent professionals who are able to handle stressful situations with strong organizational and time management skills. They need thought leaders and experts in their field who are passionate about their jobs and willing to go the extra mile to be successful.

Sounds like the perfect employee, right? Well, almost. While the above attributes will serve both the individual and the organization well, it will be difficult to innovate, diversify, and evolve in the future without fostering a culture of social capital, which is the currency of organizational success. Even seemingly perfect employees need to develop, grow, and value the relationships they have with their coworkers. It’s not enough to recruit the best employees; you have to cultivate an environment of trust, empathy, and accountability in order for these exemplary professionals to work together, develop solutions, and proliferate innovative strategies that will push your organization to the top of your respective field.

Coordinated Conflict

Conflict is usually seen as a bad thing, especially within the hierarchical structure of a professional organization. And in many respects, this is true. Without the proper structure, conflict can be a major detriment to progress, leading to resentment, apathy, and poor performance. However, in the right setting, conflict can function as a healthy, creative enterprise that empowers employees, promotes inclusion, and fosters mutual respect among coworkers regardless of roles, departments, or pay grade.

In order to create this “right setting,” your employees need to be placed in a situation where they know they have a voice ― that their opinions matter and that they won’t be judged or reprimanded for stating their ideas. One way that this is accomplished is through building empathy: a difficult task to be sure, but one that is achievable through a number of experimental exercises.

In an excerpt published on ideas.ted.com from her book, “Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes,” Margaret Heffernan details several unique ways in which organizations have successfully championed the notion of empathy and encouraged their employees to value the individual contributions and backgrounds of their coworkers in order to advance the mission of their company. For instance, she recounts Carol Vallone’s challenge as CEO of WebCT to unite a disparate and diverse team. Each department was tasked with composing their upcoming budget in order to establish the aggregate budget for the company as a whole.

Where most executives would see this as a challenge at best and an obstacle at worst, Vallone saw only opportunity. Every department head was asked to develop their team’s budget, but then they had to thoroughly explain it to a peer from a separate department who then had to present it at a team meeting. By requiring the human resources manager to speak on behalf of the marketing department and the sales team lead to do the same for operations, etc., these employees were forced to view the organization through a kaleidoscope rather than a microscope; they were able to abandon their myopic perspectives and actively participate in the long-term vision of the company from the viewpoint of a companion department.

Heffernan says that she has seen similar dynamics work successfully in several other organizations as well. In these instances, various department heads or executives will exchange roles for certain projects in order to better empathize with their coworkers and gain a better understanding of that team’s goals and processes. This proactive approach removes the artifice and manipulation of conventional conflict by establishing coworkers as decision makers in unfamiliar settings, building trust and empathy as a result of their unique experience.

Security Breeds Synchronicity

When employees feel secure in expressing themselves, their relationships with their colleagues grow, as does individual productivity and organizational progress. An influx of social capital encourages honesty in dialogue and functions as a self-propagating feedback loop in which trust and confidence compound exponentially upon themselves. The infusion of empathy can transform debate into dialectic in which the goal is to put forth the best possible solution for a given problem or challenge rather than presenting arbitrary argumentation to ensure that your idea wins out regardless of its usefulness or efficacy.

However, empathy cannot be achieved without establishing security, and security cannot be achieved without interaction. To this end, it’s important that coworkers are encouraged to develop meaningful interpersonal relationships, even if these relationships are confined to the workplace. Not everyone is going to become best friends just because their boss wills it so, but it’s important to have a basic understanding of your colleagues’ backgrounds, family lives, and interests so that you can tap into this information to create a mutually beneficial relationship that transcends shop talk and carries over into teamwork and shared ambition.

To encourage communication and relationship development, many workplaces are instituting policies that require employees to leave their desks and interact with their coworkers several times throughout the day. In Sweden, this time spent together at work is known as “fika” and is an integral component of team building. More than just a coffee break, fika is a scheduled period of refreshment in which employees are not confined by structure or hierarchy and are encouraged to decompress from work completely. Here in the U.S., design manufacturing giant ASE Global prohibits workers from taking their lunch break at their desks, and other companies have banned coffee cups from desks in an attempt to encourage their employees to gather around the coffee machine, converse with their coworkers, and take their minds off of work for a few minutes every day.

Whether it be fika or a trip to the coffee pot, these activities prompt the development of deeper, more meaningful relationships by allowing employees to connect on topics that are unrelated to work. When you know that you have certain shared interests with your coworkers, you are more likely to open up with them on matters that are related to work because the seeds of friendship have already been planted. It can be pretty easy to argue with or cut down a coworker, but it becomes exceedingly difficult to do so when that coworker is someone you consider a friend. In the latter instance, the tendency is to work with that person rather than at odds with them in order to create lasting, effective solutions.


Perhaps the greatest threat to social capital in the workplace is micromanagement. It is the sworn enemy of autonomy and the arch-nemesis of confidence. Micromanagement builds an invisible yet palpable wall between you and your coworkers that can lead to any number of distressful scenarios. It shatters empathy and decimates trust while erecting towers of isolation and moats of insecurity.

Micromanagement might seem like productive teamwork to the individual(s) delegating, nitpicking, and obfuscating, but it’s actually the diametric opposite. The person guilty of the action isn’t tutoring or nurturing or encouraging their employees; they are tyrannically molding them into contrived and convoluted clones of themselves with significantly diminishing returns. They are halting professional development rather than allowing for it. Sometimes you have to scab a few knees to toughen your skin.

This isn’t to say that all employees should be given constant free reign over their work projects but rather that reasonable expectations should be established from the beginning of any undertaking. These expectations can then be monitored, audited, or updated at regular intervals, allowing for revisions or alterations to the work without the constant looming threat of abrupt interruptions or criticisms out of context. When employees are comfortable in their roles and understand what is expected of them, they become more accountable for their work in an organic way that is free of doubt or anxiety.

Of course, achieving a balance between expectations and autonomy can be difficult. And there is a fine line between providing input and micromanagement. In order to hold your team members accountable without crossing the aforementioned fine line into micromanagement, Jacob Shriar of Officevibe has outlined four elements for success:

  1. Set expectations. It’s virtually impossible for an employee to work productively without clearly defined goals and expectations. To avoid disputes or misunderstanding down the road, set reasonable expectations at the outset of any project and hold consistent scheduled meetings to gauge progress and manage timelines.
  2. Discuss accountability. In almost every organization there are doers and there are passengers. The former should not be expected to be constantly picking up the slack, and the latter should not expect to ride on their coworkers’ coattails. Make sure that accountability is frequently discussed and enforced to keep your employees engaged, inspired, and productive.
  3. Use data to reinforce your position. Talk is cheap and anecdotal evidence just doesn’t carry water, so be sure to galvanize your position on expectations and accountability with quantifiable data. Focus on the analytics to prove your point and encourage employees to not only meet the bar but raise it to new heights.
  4. Work together to create a plan. Inclusion is one of the hallmarks of a successful workplace, which means that you should encourage employees to actively participate in developing a personal and organizational set of expectations, as well as coming to an agreed upon level of accountability and personal responsibility.

Social Capital

Social capital might sound like the name of an unscrupulous hedge fund, but it’s one of the core principles of any successful organization. Creating an environment that fosters empathy by building trust, defining expectations, and demanding accountability will reap a substantial return on social investment by encouraging autonomy and promoting inter-departmental trust and communication.



Heffernan, M. (2015, May 5). The secret ingredient that makes some teams better than others. IDEAS.TED.COM. Retrieved from http://ideas.ted.com/the-secret-ingredient-that-makes-some-teams-better-than-others/

Shriar, J. (2016, March 1). How to hold your team accountable (without micromanaging). Officevibe. Retrieved from https://www.officevibe.com/blog/holding-your-team-accountable


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