31 Mar 2017
Make a bigger difference by building social capital...
...in our work, communities and economy
by Andy Grossman, Mediator and Director, CEDR
Social scientists and economists have expended a lot of energy in defining the concept of social capital. Some have said the concept has been around for a long time but has not been labelled as such, and views have been divided on whether social capital should focus on what it is rather than what it does. Certainly, it would be difficult to come up with a single definition that pleased everyone. But so what? Among all the theoretical and definitional angst it is easy to forget that the spirit and intention behind the concept is based on a simple premise; human relationships and the quality of those relationships matter. Neuroscience, too, tells us that while everyone is born with a brain, the mind cannot arise as a single brain in isolation. It requires human contact and human relationships to develop.
Also, the simple point that human relationships matter grates against the idea that success lies solely in the hands of the individual; that every person either succeeds or fails on the basis of their own skills and abilities. On the contrary, the success of all our endeavours depends on our relationships with others as much as it does on ourselves. Denying the role of relationships and the importance of our social connectedness only serves to maintain the illusion that we are individually responsible for our own destiny. So, unless you are a hermit, you can’t avoid relationships but you do have a choice in how you manage them.
Build communication and trust: the fundamental aspect of social living
In the context of business and the workplace what really counts is how best to engage in critical conversations and dialogue with colleagues, team members and other business partners to share ideas and concerns, solve problems or resolve differences. The better we are at human conversations approached with a collaborative mind-set, the more connection we have with colleagues and the more social capital we gain. In practical terms that means people need not only a high level of trust and interdependence but also a high degree of emotional intelligence, empathy and, ultimately, being good at healthy conflict.
Most people want to be liked (often even if they say they don’t) and fear that, disagreements, arguments or bad news will create unnecessary tension with those they work. That’s why people often flinch from conflict because they believe it will damage their relationships. However, when we work as part of a team, healthy conflict increases the sense of connection we have with our colleagues and is important because if we avoid conflict nothing changes or gets done.
Pretending to agree with everyone else for the sake of appearances doesn’t help the conflict avoider or the team. The conflict avoider may have to tolerate interpersonal discomfort and resentment, and in some instances may trigger negative reactions in others which could have been prevented had s/he spoken up at the time. This reluctance to engage may come from a previous poor experience of conflict, a lack of self-confidence or being ill equipped to have difficult conversations. For the team it may mean not hearing important information or possibly bad news that needs to be communicated urgently. It’s only when we have frank and honest discussions with our colleagues that we start to stand in someone else’s shoes, to see their different take on things and engage in healthy conflict which is not driven by pointing the finger of blame.
Ideas for leading social change
For leaders this is particularly significant. Theories on successful leadership often focus on the individual’s own skills in command, decision-making, vision and motivation. The individual leader gets all the credit for his or her success. However, leading and ‘taking people with you’ is not just about better presentation or advocacy skills. It will often require conflict prevention and management, collaborative working, influencing and facilitation skills which revolve around building and maintaining relationships of trust. These are all components of building social capital without which organisational discussions surrounding strategy, tactics, change, implementation, consolidation and other such managerial staples can easily become empty shells for those with whom leaders work.
Our examples of bringing change to communities
All CEDR’s activities involve building social capital. CEDR is, after all, a social enterprise focused on better dialogue and conflict resolution. Whether it is mediating litigation disputes or resolving consumer complaints, helping a jurisdiction to introduce mediation in its civil justice system, delivering its internationally recognised mediator skills training course, working in a global partnership with the IFC Corporate Governance Group to deliver a course which offer directors guidance and practical tips for how to recognise and deal with boardroom conflict. From working together with Initiatives of Change UK to deliver skills training to young leaders and social activists in managing difficult conversations which involve them personally or where they have to intervene to help their colleagues, going into organisations to help improve dialogue between or within teams, or producing guidance on the public inquiry process to make it less adversarial and more inclusive of the public, all these activities recognise the power and importance of simply being human, of investing in personal relationships of trust, of listening to others with care and respect, and of making things happen through deep emotional engagement. That is what social capital is all about and our own example of how you and your organisation might think about how to impact your environment.