Right Now, the Only Capital That Matters Is Social Capital

Working for others — instead of merely for oneself — is what keeps employees motivated in the wake of tragedy.

Randy Scott’s home phone rang at about 6 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11. His parents wanted to know if he was home in the San Francisco Bay Area or on the road, as he often is. They told him what was happening in New York, and he turned on the television. “I just stood there and watched,” Scott recalls. “I couldn’t take my eyes away.”

Eventually Scott roused himself and drove to work — he is the CEO of Genomic Health, a biotech startup with offices in a leafy enclave a few hundred yards away from the southern end of San Francisco Bay, nearly 3,000 miles from Manhattan. A lot of his employees stayed home that day, too stunned, too scared, too whatever to come in; those who showed up mostly talked quietly, watched television, or read updates on the Internet. At noon Scott gathered them together and took them all out to lunch. “It was just a chance to be together and talk about whatever was on our minds,” he says.

During the next couple of days, Scott began to find the words he needed.

More than 6,000 people were dead. Nothing could dwarf that monstrosity or overshadow their families’ pain. But during the next 12 months, 500,000 Americans will die of cancer. Those families will grieve and suffer too, but Genomic Health, which is studying human DNA in search of cancer cures, could do something about that. The work of his employees mattered. Turning to it was a good thing.

And so it went across the country and around the world: Men and women gathered in shock, then gathered again to find or reaffirm their purpose. Scott did his job exactly right. The extraordinary scenes we have witnessed remind us of some important points. I hate to call them “management lessons,” because the term is too meager for the events behind them. Call them, instead, some observations about men and women in groups.

To begin with, can we inter, or at least shelve, the myth of atomistic man — that unintentionally malign fiction that we’re all in it for ourselves, only looking out for number one, lone rangers in a freelance nation? How self-important, irrelevant, and small the objectivist Howard Roarks seem!

If the events of the last fortnight have affirmed anything, it’s the importance of what’s often called social capital — the stock of shared purpose, trust, experience, goodwill, and sheer (or mere) humanity that we draw on in times like this. It’s social capital that brought, and continues to bring, hundreds of people to lower Manhattan to aid rescue efforts. It’s social capital that has filled the nation’s coffers with the very lifeblood of its people. It’s social capital that Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick invoked when he said the firm must survive not just for itself and its customers, but also to support the families of its murdered employees. It’s social capital that Randy Scott protected by the simple act of taking his staff to lunch.

When times are so flush that everybody’s eyeing a yacht, it’s easy to forget that we’re all in the same boat.

Yet social capital is the substratum on which all organizational life stands. Put simply: If you haven’t got it, you can’t do work. In their excellent new book, In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work, Don Cohen and Larry Prusak write, “Social capital is so much a part of the fabric of people’s working lives that it tends to be invisible…. Yet those social factors have a huge impact…. The damage caused by low social capital and the benefits to be derived from high social capital are visible and understandable.”

Social capital, like all capital, needs to be put to work, not stuffed in a mental or organizational mattress.

Do nothing with it, and it becomes inert, even annoying, like one of those romances where you spend all your time talking about the quality of the relationship and never go out dancing. Invest in it and find ways to put it to productive use, however, and the people in your organization will rise to almost any challenge.

Motivation studies conducted in the 1950s by Frederick Herzberg showed that wages were what he called a “hygiene factor” — something people expected, the way they expect a decent level of cleanliness, but not motivators or sources of job satisfaction.

The sociology is good but the oversimplified extrapolation — “Money is not a motivator” — is nonsense. Money motivates me to do lots of things, as it does you, and a lot of money would motivate me to do things that I wouldn’t do for less. (We’ve established what I am: We’re just dickering over the price.) Money motivates. But it does not inspire. Nor does it unite: We might pitch in to buy a bunch of lottery tickets, but we’re almost certain to squabble if we actually win. Social capital can inspire and certainly keeps groups together, whether we’ve won the lottery or drawn the short straw.

There are lots of ways managers can foster social capital, and lots of ways to deplete it.

The ordinary workday is filled with small and large opportunities to put aside immediate gain for the good of the group, answer a question from someone who could have looked up the answer himself, proceed on the basis of a shared understanding or trust without having to resort to a contentious contractual negotiation. Certainly a company’s mission and values come into play. I’ll wager that companies with a strong sense of mission, and whose mission speaks to values beyond mere success the way Genomic Health’s does, will recover faster and emerge stronger than companies where this stuff isn’t acknowledged. That’s perhaps the strongest affirmation managers can make: What we do matters.

Posted by on September 16, 2001