How to build social capital

Sally Tanski explores the importance of leaders’ emotional intelligence in growing social capital

If you’re a leader, or work with leaders, this situation may be familiar to you…

You find it’s difficult to motivate team members, who seem disengaged and distant – and you realise how little you really know about them as people.

Or maybe you’ve been struggling with an issue that seems unsolvable until you talk to a colleague over a cup of coffee, for the first time, at a rare ‘in person’ event, and it turns out they can offer a solution, even though they had no idea that you had this issue.

What’s going on here? The underlying theme is  social capital, something which  McKinsey defines as networks, relationships, shared norms, and trust among individuals, teams, and business leaders. One way to think about social capital is ‘the glue that brings people together’, and the connection this glue provides is critical for business performance. Research shows that when that connection exists between colleagues, leaders, and the organisation’s mission, their ability to be agile, engaged and deliver satisfaction to their customers increases.

The pandemic, with the associated changes in how we work, means that the way we connect now is different. Remote and hybrid working has reduced the amount of time we spend in person with our colleagues, which brings new challenges.  One of the top five leadership challenges in the next five years is navigating remote and hybrid working.

Leaders who have strong EI are more adaptable, creative, and resilient and therefore better able to create an environment where connection can flourish

To ensure people and their organisations get the benefits social capital brings, leaders need to think differently and change their approach so that they maintain connection with individual employees and help their whole team experience feelings of social belonging and inclusion.

Developing skill in emotional intelligence enhances a leader’s ability to build social capital. Emotional intelligence (EI), the ‘intelligent use of our emotions’, or ‘thinking about our feelings to guide our behaviour’, is the habitual practice of thinking about feeling, and feeling about thinking. It’s an ability that can be developed by becoming more aware of the underpinning attitudes of ourselves, as well as others. 

While all EI skills support an individual’s ability to build social capital some are particularly important, for example:

  • Awareness of one’s own and others’ emotions – this enables a leader to communicate more powerfully as it’s easier to know the right thing to say, and at the right time.  A leader can meet people’s needs and have the impact intended if they are tuned into their own and other people’s feelings and reactions.
  • Being authentic makes it easier for people to trust us, because they know and understand what matters to us. Consistency and reliability enables a feeling of safety. so that people can relax and be more open and authentic themselves.
  • Flexibility in thinking and approach increases people’s willingness to share ideas, discoveries, hopes and concerns without fear of retribution or being met with a closed mind. As a result, innovation increases, and learning accelerates.
  • Leaders who develop strength in connecting with others, defined as ‘The extent and ease with which they are able to make significant connections with other people’ will provide the natural building blocks for social capital. They need to invest time in building and maintaining relationships, sharing thoughts, values and ideas and establishing strong networks where everyone can benefit from shared knowledge and experience.

Leaders who have strong EI are more adaptable, creative, and resilient and therefore better able to create an environment where connection can flourish, especially in a virtual or hybrid work environment. Even though humans are social creatures, with an innate need to connect, the environment to enable this is crucial and leaders should make an intentional effort to create and enable the conditions for social capital to thrive. Some ways to do this include:  

  • Identify the type of connection required

Research by RedThread1 identifies two different ways we connect: intellectually (our knowledge) versus emotionally (our feelings). We also need to understand which stage of the journey is best to connect because the approach required to form connections with people, ideas, and information is different according to what’s needed when we are deepening existing connections.

To enable intellectual relationships to form and grow, leaders can facilitate getting to know one another and utilise information, for example when allocating work. Supporting people to form an emotional connection means leaders can role model ways of sharing who they are, for example through storytelling, to make the information memorable. Leaders who provide realistic and relevant opportunities for collaboration, peer support, and challenge create the conditions for those connections to deepen.

  • Build trust

Leaders can build trust through a reciprocal approach of trusting their teams, taking into account people’s levels of capability and motivation to shape requests that are challenging, but not overwhelming. Strong relationships are formed from mutual trust and respect, and these grow when leaders are open and honest about how they feel, valuing and accepting themselves as well as others, and ensuring their personal values shape their decisions and actions.

  • Communicate meaningfully

A key aspect of developing and maintaining strong connections with people is taking into consideration when and how to share information. Relationships are vulnerable to the timing and content of key messages, and meaningful communication takes into account what is really important to people. We need to really listen to one another, removing all distractions, including judgment and bias, to be totally focused on what someone says and what they mean – noticing incongruences between what is said and how it is said.

A key aspect of meaningful communication is the skill of asking questions which encourages people to open up and talk not only about what they’re doing but how they’re doing.

Motivation and engagement are at the heart of what employees need to perform at their best. To do this, leaders need to build purpose, meaning and involvement, to encourage employees to form an emotional attachment to their organisations and work. Creating and maintaining the glue that brings us all together, social capital, remains firmly in the forefront of the role of leaders, today and in the future.


  1. Adams, H.G. (2022). Rethinking Connection for a Hybrid World. RedThread Research.

Sally Tanski is management consultant at Talogy

Sally Tanski

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