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Social Capital

Posted on November 15, 2017
Image of a pile of business cards

Last week I attended a lecture in which Mario Moussa, a Wharton professor, spoke about topics in his book, The Art of the Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas. His entire lecture was captivating, but one specific element really stuck with me, and that’s the idea of social capital.

What is it? Well, it’s something you want. Social capital refers to the number of connections you have, specifically those connections outside of your group, department, or division. Dr. Moussa noted that those individuals with high social capital are viewed as having better ideas, and even more important, they will on average have 15% more earning power than their counterparts with a low social capital – a significant number.

Why is social capital important? Well, within our organizations (small and large), we can’t operate in a vacuum; we need to rely on others to accomplish tasks, projects, etc. You may need to ask for an introduction, expertise, a favor, or you may need an advocate.

So how do you build social capital? In all honesty, it takes time. When I first started at Drexel, my boss told me to meet as many people as possible and offer to go to them. I thought it was a great way to learn where things were on campus, and while that was a benefit, what he was doing was setting me up to build social capital. I collected business cards of everyone I met and tried to understand how they were connected to the University and how I could foster the relationship. In my experience, there are three specific ways this can be accomplished:

  • When meeting with people, ask them what they do – people like to talk about themselves, and this will give a better understanding of their position and how they contribute to the company.
  • Say yes, when people ask you for help – be in the position of being owed.
  • Follow-up is important – for example, if you met with someone two weeks ago who was headed out on an exciting 10-day trip, seek them out and ask how the trip went. This also applies to ensuring you do whatever you promise to do – if you promise to send a list of restaurants you visited last time you were in Boston or the latest market report, then make sure you do it.

Building social capital is a two-way street. If you enter a relationship with “What can you do for me” attitude, the building process will be fraught with many setbacks. You have to enter into all business relationships with the expectation that you will be giving and taking, and you have to understand the give and take may not be evenly weighted – I recommend you read more about givers and takers in Dr. Moussa’s book. Another way to think about this given and take is with a banking analogy. When in a relationship, you want to make deposits – this occurs when you do a favor, when you do what you said you would do, etc. because you can’t make any withdrawals – asking for a favor, advocacy, unless you have money (deposits) in the account. And like a bank account, you always want more deposits than withdrawals because you never know when you might need to make a large withdrawal.

Building social capital benefits you and your department in many ways because it gives you power. You have resources to draw upon when needed across a broad spectrum, and according to Dr. Moussa, social capital is crucial to building rapport, one of the key elements necessary for successful negotiations.

If your social capital is limited, then get to work building it. If you have significant social capital, don’t take it for granted, continue to nurture it. Either way, understand how you can use your social capital to your advantage, while being careful to avoid expending it because like trust, once you’ve lost it, it is hard to gain back.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Director of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University

For more information about Dr. Moussa and his work, please visit his webpage.

Posted in leadership-management-skills