Leadership and People Skills

What is Social Capital?

Social capital is the network of relationships and connections between people that allow individuals and societies to be more successful. It is sometimes called human capital or social network. In other words, social capital is a way of thinking about how many connections you have to people, institutions and resources that can help you succeed. When starting a business, social capital can be just as important as (and sometimes even more important than) financial capital. 

How can your social capital help you?

Social capital has been linked to a variety of positive outcomes, including better health, lower crime rates, and more successful startup communities. For the purposes of this guide, we’re focusing on the last one, but increasing your social capital can improve your life in many different ways! It makes sense then, that successful people often surround themselves with other successful people, and in general, people who come from well connected families are not afraid to ask for help. They know that connections and social capital are some of the keys to success.

But, if you aren’t successful yet, and you don’t come from a well-connected family, how can you increase social capital? The best way is by increasing your network and identifying and recruiting supporters. It’s not enough to just meet new people and add new contacts to your phone or email list (although, those aren’t bad places to start). You need to build they right kind of relationships with the right people. If you invest time into building your relationships with potential supporters, you’re business is likely to benefit from these relationships in the future. In other words, investing in social capital can turn into financial capital, but it takes work and reciprocity. 

  • Can you think of any examples of how you might use your social capital or your relationships with others to support or help you?

  • Can you think of any examples of how you might invest in social capital by offering support or help to others?  

What kinds of social connections exist? 

If you already have a large social network, you may have already found times where someone you know helped you with some aspect of your life or business. The more you help someone on the more they help you, the stronger your connection becomes. You’ll likely have stronger ties to and feel closer or more connected to some people than you do to others.  You probably also have some people that you have weaker ties with. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! In fact, having a lot of weak ties can be a good thing, and increasing both types of ties can be beneficial.

  • Strong ties exist among individuals connected within densely knit, homogenous networks such as those involving family and close friends. They involve more frequent interaction, emotional intensity and intimacy, and feelings of reciprocity. This relationship results in a close social network where those connected via strong ties also share other friends/colleagues.

  • Weak ties exist among individuals connected within sparse, heterogeneous networks such as those involving acquaintances. A weak tie just means that you are not as close to this person as you could be. This relationship results in a spread out social network where those connected via weak ties rarely share other friends/colleagues.

The strength of any tie is a function of the frequency and duration of interaction, level of emotional intensity and intimacy, and the reciprocal services found within the tie. Most of us have at least a few strong ties to people we are close to and who we are comfortable talking to or asking for help, advice, or other types of support. Most of us probably also have people we have weaker ties to that we feel less comfortable with or are less likely to ask for support. 

This means that there are three main ways you can grow or strengthen your network:

  1. Build more strong ties

  2. Build more weak ties

  3. Turn some of your weak ties into strong ties

Now that we’ve learned social capital, networks, and strong vs. weak ties, let’s talk about how people in your social networks can provide you with different types of social support.

Researchers talk about four main types of social support.

  1. Emotional Support is defined as support from another person that is emotional or can help you feel better. It can be in the form of empathy or compassion. Some behavioral examples of emotional support are: 

    • Listening

    • Showing concern

    • Being trustworthy and dependable

    • Being accepting and nonjudgmental

    • Offering encouragement and motivation

    • Building self-confidence 

    • Reassuring, showing affection and warmth

  2. Tangible Support is defined as support from another person that is physical, concrete, or practical. Some behavioral examples of tangible support are:

    • Provide financial assistance, or material goods or services

    • Do favors

    • Make connections to other people, places, or experiences

    • Coach or help prepare for an pitch

    • Review a business plan or application.

  3. Informational Support is defined as support in the form of providing information. Some examples of informational support are:

    • Provide advice, guidance, knowledge, or suggestions 

    • Help with problem-solving or decision-making

    • Help formulate a goal 

    • Help develop plans to achieve goals 

    • Help with time management

  4. Companionship Support  is defined as someone spending time and doing fun things with you. Some examples of companionship support are:

    • Including you and building a sense of social belonging 

    • Doing shared, fun activities together 

    • Enjoying each other’s company 

    • Celebrating successes together 

    • Meeting regularly

How can you manage your social capital?

Manage your social capital using an Eco-Map. In an Eco-Map, you try to include as many different people as possible, including people you know well who are likely important supports in your life as well as people who you don’t know very well. Creating your personal Eco-Map will help you identify sources of social capital that are already available to you in your world. Start by thinking about some of the common contexts where you might have supportive connections with people, like college professors or people in your community that you admire. You can include family and friends, but you should focus on people who may be able to help you achieve your goals.

You build an Eco-Map by writing your name in the center in a circle and around the circle the names of people who provide different types of support with lines drawn from the person in the middle to each supportive person. Solid lines are used to represent a strong tie between you and the person. Dotted lines are used to represent a weak tie between you and the person. Lines with crosses through them are used to represent a stressful relationship with the person. This is a relationship that may have the potential for developing from a stressful relationship to a more positive relationship and become a strong tie.

You can use your Eco-Map to identify what support you have and what additional support you would like from the people that you have included in your Eco-Map. It can also help you find gaps in knowledge or relationship strength. Are there any topics you feel you could not discuss with people on your Eco-map?

Why is social capital important?

Social capital, or social networks, have value at the individual level, at the community level and at the societal level. Strong and weak ties are both important because they connect individuals to valuable resources like information or opportunities. They also help foster trust and provide the glue which facilitates co-operation, exchange and innovation.

Pro Tip

Your social capital, or your network, can help positively change your life or help you in some way like helping you in areas where you don’t have experience, achieve your goals, get advice, or even cope with stress.