Your skills, experience and professional network will only get you so far. The real secret to being an influential figure in the workplace is having a bank of social capital to withdraw from.
The benefits of social capital manifest in different ways in the workplace. It might result in pay rises and promotions, or being included in exciting projects because you’ve proven yourself to be a value-add.
It could also be your saving grace. For example, if you need to own up to a clumsy mistake, having a full tank of social capital to draw from can result in a more forgiving response from your boss and colleagues.
We expend a great amount of energy polishing our technical skills and climbing the ladder, but we don’t spend as much time thinking about how to cultivate social capital at work, which is often what allows us to have a positive impact.
It becomes even more important in a hybrid work setting, says Aliza Licht, author and founder of Leave Your Mark.
“In the hybrid and virtual world we now work in, people can become somewhat invisible if they are not intentional in creating opportunities for visibility,” she says. “[This means] oral and written communication skills have never been more critical. We communicate nonstop in obvious and subtle ways, so getting your message right is paramount to success.”
Licht says it’s important for people to be cognisant of why someone would want to work with them.
“The critical skills of being accessible, reliable, gracious, communicative and dedicated to the task are essential when trying to prove your value to someone else,” she says.
Instead of relying on your title or perceived power to build relationships – which will often result in surface level or inauthentic relationships – it’s about putting in the time to develop a name for yourself as someone who can be relied upon.
Licht learned this firsthand when she left a corporate career of 17 years to pursue consulting.
“I went from being a member of a large corporate office to working remotely and independently. Without my executive title and the credibility of being employed by a well-known retail group, I could only lean on myself when pursuing new business.
“My nearly two decades of accrued social capital bolstered my ability to have my calls returned and my emails responded to.”
So what can HR professionals do to increase their own social capital? Here are four things to keep in mind.
1. Gift others with your time
We work in a culture that glorifies busyness. It’s not uncommon for people – often those in higher positions – to boast about being in back-to-back meetings all day or make a point of letting people know they worked late into the evening… again.
It’s the person who is always late to a meeting with you or quickly scoffs down their lunch at their desk in between tasks (I say this with no judgment; I have been this person). While we might think we’re impressing people with our ‘always-on’ attitude, it could be working against us.
When we start to equate our busyness with our self-worth at work, we’re often less generous with our time and less aware of how this could be negatively impacting those around us.
“The world is so noisy, and people are caught up in their needs and wants,” says Licht.
“If you take the time to raise your hand and help someone else, especially if you’re offering unsolicited support, you become a superstar. Nothing is more powerful than asking someone else, ‘How can I help you?'”
Something to try: Book in a recurring time slot in your calendar each week to reach out to a colleague and see how you can help them. This out-of-the-blue support will likely come as a welcome surprise and will do wonders for boosting your social capital.
2. Show up consistently
Being consistent means you are considered reliable, says Licht.
“A key component of social capital is that the other person knows they can depend on you because you have proven yourself. Repetition is reputation. If you’re consistently late, you become known for that. Conversely, if you deliver on time every time, that score is also kept.”
However, if you’re working in HR, you’re likely already juggling many plates. Trying to bring consistency to each aspect of your job can lead to feelings of impostor syndrome or burnout. You can’t be everything to everyone.
Take the time to think about the qualities and behaviours that are most critical to your role. For example, it might be important that you’re consistently actively listening when managers or employees come to you with challenging situations, or it might be paramount for you to show the board and executive team that you’re consistently providing them with valuable people data to help inform their decisions.
Something to try: Take the time to reflect on the non-negotiable behaviours that you want to demonstrate consistently. Pick two or three and consider them your North Star. Developing an internal mantra like “I will give people my full attention when engaging in conversation” can help remind you of this North Star in the moment.
“When people know you’re great to work with and that they can count on you to deliver, that is career insurance.” – Aliza Licht, author and founder of Leave Your Mark.
3. Communicate with intention
How you engage and communicate with the people you work with matters – a lot. Are you unclear, unspecific and erratic in your communication? Or are you someone who takes the time to put your message into words that your recipient will clearly understand?
“Communicating with intention means tailoring your pitch to your audience, which requires you to research [and] understand who you are talking to [and why],” says Licht.
“It also means being clear and directional in what you ask, writing persuasively and communicating in ways that show you’ve done your homework.”
Read HRM’s article on how to communicate more persuasively.
This goes hand in hand with respecting people’s time. Are you someone who constantly pings their colleagues with a barrage of questions, just because you had a break in your day to fire off messages? (Again, no judgment. I’ve been there).
Communicating with intention could look like this:
- You sense that John is feeling overwhelmed with work today, but you’ve got an important question that you don’t want to forget to ask him. Write it down and make a note to bring it up with him tomorrow morning, or schedule a message to go out later that day.
- You are someone who prefers to work in the evenings to suit your lifestyle. Rather than send emails late at night under the assumption that people should know you don’t expect them to reply until work hours (because many won’t), schedule emails to go out the next morning.
They don’t need to know you were working until 11pm. That can subliminally set unhealthy cultural expectations about work ethic, especially if you’re in a position of power.
- Rather than pulling someone out of their deep flow of work to ask them how to use a computer program you’re unfamiliar with, spend five or ten minutes researching how to use it yourself.
If you still need support, demonstrate your initial legwork. You might say, “I’ve spent some time trying to understand this software and have tried X and Y, but I’m still unclear on the process. Can you let me know when you have a few minutes to run me through this?”
This is one of those situations where people might not necessarily notice when you’re practicing respectful, intentional communication, but they’ll definitely notice when you’re not.
Something to try: If you want to become more conscious of not interrupting others or setting unhealthy response expectations, you could leave a visual reminder in your workspace (like a Post-It note) that prompts you to think twice before hitting ‘send’.
To Licht’s point around tailoring your message to your audience, you might also add a step into your communication process; for example, before sending off an email, ask yourself things like: ‘Is all the information I’m sharing with this person relevant to them?’, ‘Could I leave anything out to make it more valuable?’ or ‘Should I call them instead of sending a long email, or vice versa?’
4. Diversify your network
Social capital also comes from the relationships you build. Instead of focusing your attention solely on people you think will ‘get you somewhere’, think about broadening your network by building relationships with people from different parts of your organisation.
“Cross-functional relationships are underrated and valuable,” says Licht. “People tend to focus on their teams, but those who reach across departments to form relationships and earn social capital are the ones who get poached for mobility or new opportunities. You need group consensus.”
After all, you never know who could be in the room when your name is brought up.
Something to try: Schedule in a coffee catch-up or lunch with someone from a different department once a month. Not only is this a great relationship-building exercise, it’s also a good way to learn more about how the business operates or to identify opportunities in your company.
“Standing out in a sea of competition and becoming known for what you do best are the by-products of well-crafted communication and repetition. When people know you’re great to work with and that they can count on you to deliver, that is career insurance.”
This post was inspired by an article Licht wrote for Harvard Business Review on 15 May 2023. You can read it here.
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