Social Capital: Avoiding Workplace Faux Pas

Social Capital

I was recently selected to take on a program manager task for a program. It’s exciting to take on something new! However, it is becoming apparent that this is a lot bigger than I thought it would be. At the same time, one of the projects I’ve been working on has blown up (think “iceberg” where most of the work was lurking below the surface). I’m really excited about that too! On top of all this, the university I teach has called to say they want to involve me more in the coming year. Bonus!

Then a small voice inside my head whispers, “But when will you sleep or workout or go to the bathroom?”

“Hush!” I tell the small voice. “This is what we have been working so hard to achieve. This will propel us to the next step.”

“Well, it won’t propel you forward if you keep screwing up,” says the small voice. Silence … I sigh because the small voice is right. I have to make some changes in my life in order to stay on track. After analyzing my recent faux pas (while I tossed and turned all night because I was too stressed to sleep), I came up the one thing I could work on to smooth out the problems: work on my social capital.

What is social capital? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “(t)he networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” In other words, working harder to get all of these projects done is the wrong answer because I can’t do it all. I need my network to support me especially during this transition. A great network of people will tell me when things aren’t going well and who to talk with to solve problems. A great network allows me to work less and achieve more.

What can I do to build and maintain my social capital? This is a two-part question and I’ll focus on the maintenance side of it for this post. Maintaining what is already have takes less energy than acquiring it. There are four things I need to do to maintain my network.

Honor Everyone’s Time

Honoring people’s time means I arrive on time, contribute without highjacking the meeting, listen and incorporate other’s opinions, and leave ‘when all is said and done’. It sounds easy but it becomes increasingly difficult for Type A personalities to slow down during crisis or let a project rest for a few hours while they attend the next meeting or work on a competing deadline.

What I’ve done for myself: As crazy as it sounds, I’ve set my clocks ahead 5 minutes and my reminders to 20 minutes instead of 15. Yes, I know that the clock is fast but it still triggers me to shift from whatever I’m doing with enough time left over to hit the restroom or refill my water bottle.

What I’ve done for others: I start and end meetings on time. If someone comes in a little late, I quickly say, “You can touch base with (insert coworker/teammate name) for the things you missed”. If meeting participants are unprepared, I end the meeting as soon as there are no actionable items on the table; there is no reason to waste everyone’s time while one or two people try to guess about data results.

Accept Praise Graciously

It is difficult for me to accept praise. I get all flustered and then say something completely asinine. It takes me forever to write thank you notes because I don’t know what to say. One mentor told me that when people praise me and I minimize my involvement, I am essentially rejecting their gift of praise.

What I’ve done for myself: I say, “Thank You” and smile through my deep-seated uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes, I will follow it with, “You are so kind” or “It was a pleasure”.

What I’ve done for others: I praise and thank people for their work. If someone is too self-deprecating, I try to help them understand how valuable they are.

Keep a Healthy Level of Humility

Keeping a healthy level of humility means not being too humble or too arrogant. I have the arrogant angle under control … most of the time. But we all work with others who don’t have their balancing act together. You know who they are.

  • They know your job better than you do.
  • There is nothing they don’t already know.
  • They take credit for everything.
  • They can’t be bothered with the details because they are too busy taking credit for someone else’s work.

What I’ve done for myself: I remind myself of how much I don’t know and that there are people out there who are wicked smart. I invite them to weigh in on things before presenting the product to leadership.

What I’ve done for others: I encourage others to build teams and solicit input from everyone. If I realize something is a product of one person, I send the team back out to build something more collaborative. If it is a group of peers vice employees, I try to steer the group to contribute equally within their skills and expertise.

Don’t Burn Bridges

My humility may be balanced but my anger management isn’t. I have a tendency to fly off the handle and be scathing in my comments. Of course, 15 minutes later, I will realize that it isn’t all that bad. So, I work hard to not burn bridges … or completely blow them into tiny slivers of wood. Burning bridges works in all directions; up the chain, down the chain, and across functions. It is hard to rebuild a bridge once you burn it so make sure you are good with a lifetime of bad relationships with this person.

What I’ve done for myself: When I find myself getting angry, I write it down. It slows my mind and redirects my anger. As an example, when an employee quits via email with no advanced notice, I write/type out what they have done instead of charging to their desk to ask them what the hell is going on. If that doesn’t work, I vent to a trusted friend until I’m under control.

What I’ve done for others: When others are in the process of burning a bridge, I ask if they want to take a break, take a walk, or take a coffee break. Periodically (and proactively), I talk about the fact that a person we are having trouble with today could possibly be in a position of power over us tomorrow. “Do you really want to worry about repercussions from burning that bridge?”

Maintaining my social capital is the focus for now. Building social capital is on the horizon for the coming weeks.

How do you build and maintain social capital?



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