When people describe positive experiences at work, they describe feelings of belonging, a sense of contributing to shared goals, supporting and being supported by others, growing and developing. These occur when people intentionally and authentically connect with one another. Social capital is the glue that brings people together through networks, relationships and shared norms and it helps build trust among individuals, teams and business leaders. But when people spend less time in the office together, social capital can begin to wane.
Many miss those clichéd “water cooler” moments that typified social interaction pre-hybrid/remote working and although the benefits of this new working era are well recorded, the risk is that it becomes too transactional, overly focused on the “what needs to be done, forgetting about the “how” and this has serious consequences, as it begins to erode social capital. An essential component of successful organisational life is defined by McKinsey as, “the presence of networks, relationships, shared norms and trust among individuals, teams and business leaders” – social capital is critical for business performance. According to Red Thread Research, organisations with strong social connections were 3.2 times more likely to have satisfied customers and this is mostly enabled by higher levels of agility and engagement. To ensure people and their organisations gain the benefits social capital brings, leaders need to think differently and change their approach, so that they help their whole team experience feelings of social belonging and inclusion. Being able to do this is enhanced by strong skills in emotional intelligence such as selfawareness and awareness of others – authenticity and the ability to connect with others.
McKinsey’s research shows that factors such as inclusivity and community play a large part in encouraging people to join and stay with an employer. In our new world of virtual and hybrid working, organisations with low levels of social capital may struggle to attract and retain great talent and also to make the most of the people they have. So not only do they miss out on the enhanced business performance that strong social capital enables, they also face the increasing costs of attracting, hiring and onboarding new people more frequently. Our own research indicates that one of the top five leadership challenges in the next five years is going to be navigating remote and hybrid working. Many leaders are very aware that they have a role to play in creating and enabling connections in their teams, but in the world of remote and hybrid working, they are finding it challenging. To ensure people and their organisations gain the benefits that social capital brings, leaders need to think differently and change their approach, so that they help their whole team experience feelings of social belonging and inclusion.
Emotional Intelligence helps to build social capital and that includes awareness of one’s own and others’ emotions. Leader communication has more impact and meaning when it is underpinned by an insight into how they and others are feeling and reacting and increased awareness can make it easier to know what to say – as well as when and how to say it – to best meet people’s needs and have the impact intended. Being authentic increases how much people trust their leaders, because it’s easier to know and understand the “real person” and what matters to them. People feel safe and are more likely to relax, be open and authentic themselves, when their leaders are consistent and reliable. Flexibility in style, thinking and approach often encourages people to share ideas, discoveries, hopes and concerns, without fear of criticism or being met with a closed mind and this leads to increased innovation and faster learning. Remote working can make people “invisible” and people who may be less outgoing in their personalities can disappear from the leadership radar. Leaders who are sensitive to this can ensure they focus on everyone and encourage people to take responsibility for building and maintaining their own networks and connections. Leaders who are strong in connecting with others, defined as “the extent and ease with which they are able to make significant connections with other people”, often provide the natural building blocks for social capital. These leaders invest time in building and maintaining relationships, sharing thoughts, values and ideas and establishing purposeful networks where everyone can benefit from shared knowledge and experience. They create opportunities such as collaboration days, where people come together to intentionally share insights, generate ideas and co-create solutions, giving meaning and purpose to connecting.
Leaders with strong EI are more adaptable, creative and resilient, which enables them to create an environment where connection can flourish, especially when people are working remotely some or all of the time. Humans are social creatures, with an innate need to connect and the environment to enable this is crucial. Without it, we disengage. Leaders need to make an intentional effort to create and enable the conditions for social capital to thrive. Using emotional intelligence skills, leaders can identify the type of connection required. Again, Redthread research identifies different types of connection, intellectual (our knowledge) and emotional (our feelings). Deciding how to approach this depends on how well-connected people are already. Intellectual relationships form and grow when leaders facilitate people coming to know one another and sharing and using information to enhance productivity and creativity. Leaders that share insight into who they are, role model ways of forming emotional connections and storytelling is a powerful way to do this, as it makes the information memorable. These connections deepen when leaders provide realistic and relevant opportunities for collaboration, peer support and challenge. Leaders who understand levels of capability and motivation – and shape requests that are challenging, but not overwhelming – are less likely to micromanage” or be unrealistic in their expectations. This helps to build trust and respect with the team. Trusted leaders are open and honest about how they feel and show that they are aware of their own flaws as well as strengths. They demonstrate that they value and accept themselves as well as others and their personal values are evident in their decisions and actions. They are clear on expectations and focus on results (outcomes) more than activity (inputs).
Strong connections can be developed and maintained by sharing information in the right way at the right time. Less time spent face-to-face means reduced opportunities for learning and picking up information in passing, so agreeing effective ways to share information is essential. Leaders can support their teams to trial and review different media, timing and style of communication to find what works best in a dynamic and often fast paced environment. Relationships are vulnerable to the timing and content of key messages and communication is meaningful when it addresses what really matters to people. Leaders who are great at connecting take time to really listen to people. They don’t allow themselves to be distracted by external or internal factors – such as judgment and bias – so they are totally focused on what someone says and what they mean. They notice incongruences between what is said and how it is said. Skilful communicators ask questions which encourage people to open up and talk not only about what they’re doing but how they’re doing. Leaders play an integral role in creating and maintaining social capital, the glue that brings us all together and this remains firmly in the forefront of their role, today and in the future. Organisations which invest in developing the skills required to help build social capital and networks will reap the many benefits that come when people form an emotional attachment to their organisations and work and have a strong sense of purpose, meaning and involvement.
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