Saturday, May 14, 2011

Social Capital

One of the more intriguing aspects of group dynamics is understanding the economics of social capital—which is a barometer of whether a person's statements or actions are likely to be viewed kindly or with exasperation. Some members always seem to have more, while some have less.

While there's an aspect of popularity in this concept, it's more nuanced than that. Social capital is about the ways in which a person is cared about by others, and measures how much others are willing to do in support of that person. Social capital accrues when a person gives more than they take, when a person is more apt to lead the group out of hard spots than into them, when a person graciously takes on a job that no one else cares to do (taking a hit for the team), or whenever a person spontaneously does something above and beyond for the benefit of all.

The payoff can come in the form of favors (walking Fido while so-and-so is on vacation, doing so-and-so's cooking shift when they're sick, even making so-and-so a cup of coffee), in the form of grace (not being irritated when so-and-so is late to a meeting, or leaves the car window open on the night when it rains), or in the form of support (going along with so-and-so's request to move bowling night to Thursdays, or to have everyone wear goofy hats to dinner).

How can one lose social capital? By creating or aggravating social awkwardness. By trapping the group in dynamics that are unproductive or onerous. By making requests that are a strain for the group, or are otherwise perceived to be out of balance with support offered in return.

Humility and kindness tend to increase one's social capital; arrogance and self-importance tend to diminish it. Honesty and a willingness to accept responsibility for errors tend to enhance one's capital; defensiveness and blaming others tend to undercut it. When people use power (the ability to influence actions and agreements) for the benefit of all (power with), their social capital grows. When people are perceived to use power for the benefit of some at the expense of others (power over), their social capital declines.

If a person draws down their capital account too far, there may be nothing left. While it's possible to borrow under certain circumstances—personal sickness, or loss of a loved one are two good examples—it's possible to reach a point where credit will no longer be extended and the person's membership is no longer socially viable.

Sometimes the accounting can be complex. For example, you could earn social capital be being a hard worker, yet squander most or all of your gain by being a difficult person to work with. Conversely, you could be a highly popular compatriot (earning capital through your jocularity), yet irresponsible with tasks (eroding capital through your unreliable or erratic behavior). It can get tricky. Further, you can have more capital with some people than with others (perhaps by virtue of whom you're better connected with), such that missteps may be easily forgiven by those with whom you carry a high balance, yet lead to outrage among those with whom your account is low.

It doesn't matter whether you're a socialist or a capitalist; all groups are affected by the flow of social capital among members, and it behooves you to learn how to accurately read the balance sheets.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like this... Straightforward and easy to understand.