The secret to success: what is social capital?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 20:59

By AIM Senior Research Fellow Dr Samantha Johnson

“You’ve got brains in your head. You’ve got feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” - Dr Seuss

We can steer ourselves in any direction we choose, but can we win a promotion or get our dream job?  Looking across the Australian public sector, there are opportunities opening up everywhere.  But can you make sure that you’re in the running?

Well, research presented at the world’s most prestigious management conference, the Academy of Management, in LA recently, suggested that we can.  All of us can.  But there’s a secret recipe with a magic ingredient that will make all the difference.  Interested? Read on.

The three ingredients for success are: ability, personality and opportunity.  And yes, these three elements are acceptable in a meritorious process.

Be good at what you do and perform well.  Yep, got that. 

Be ready for the opportunities as they arise.  Yep, got that too. 

Personality? Is this a key ingredient?  Now that’s tricky.  How do you know if your personality is helping or hindering? And is there anything that you can do about it?

It’s a tough message, but your personality might very well be making the difference. 

What’s important here is knowing what part of your personality you should be thinking about and how you can use it to support career success.  It’s also important to focus your energy on what you can do, rather than on the external factors that may have slowed your career progression down over the last few years.

So, where to focus your attention?

Your personality includes your natural – and learnt – ability to connect to other people.

Connecting to other people means gaining and maintaining what’s called ‘social capital’.

Social capital is what you need to be connected to people who help you build your ability and be ready for opportunities.

Developing social capital means thinking long and hard about how effectively you engage with others and build relationships.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are you embedded in the organisation’s networks?  Keep in mind that being embedded may take several years.  Popping into the occasional happy hour, leads not to embedment.
  2. Do you have people in your organisation you can turn to when you need advice, information or assistance?  Do you work hard to have these needs met or do people help you and give you information and advice readily?  Do they genuinely help you – or do they respond to your position in the organisation?
  3. Do you stay in an organisation long enough to become embedded in social networks and build relationships?  Again – happy hour isn’t going to cut it. Think five years plus.
  4. Are you aware of the formal and informal structures in your organisation? The formal one is published and openly accepted.  The informal one reflects the contacts and interactions in the organisations. The people and the connections across groups. 

So, if you are thinking that this information isn’t quite striking enough to warrant presentation at an international management conference, then you’re right.  There’s an over riding element that holds these ingredients together. 

Scholars from four leading US business schools undertook a longitudinal study that looked at how one very particular aspect of personality improved career success. This success is evident across all sectors.

This un-named aspect of personality opened the door to opportunity and allowed people to shine. Those who develop high levels of it are more likely to succeed than those who don’t.

Now, for those of you feeling the waves of cynicism build as you read, paddle out to smoother waters.  This is positive stuff.  It’s about influence, not manipulation.  It’s about positive relationships not dysfunctional ones.  And it leads to the ‘right’ people being promoted – people like you – not the dodgy ones.

And yes – I’ll tell you what it is before you run out of patience!  Actually – those of you who have it already know what it is, don’t you?  Do you need more clues?

It builds relationships which result in career progression.

It’s more important in senior roles than in junior roles.

It helps people be known, respected and assisted throughout their careers.  It means mentors come to you, sponsors seek you out and opportunities become known to you.

It helps you identify your strengths and weaknesses, build on your weaknesses and sell your strengths.

It’s the ‘intersection of general mental abilities and emotion’.

You got it.  It’s emotional intelligence.

If your CV is up to date and you know where you want to be a year from now, turn your focus inward.  Hone your abilities, find exciting opportunities but most importantly, add a generous dose of EI as that’s the secret ingredient that will drive your success.

Reference: A longitudinal study of emotional intelligence and mid-career success. Rose, J.C., Arthaud-Day, M.L., Ramaswami, A. & Culbertson, S.S. Presented at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting, Anaheim, Las Angeles, USA 2016

AIM's Leading with Emotional Intelligence short course teaches you to apply emotional intelligence through a range of tools and techniques. By understanding the science behind communication, you will find new ways to harness your own emotions and those of others – improve decision-making, behaviour and performance as a result.