The Value of Social Capital: Why the Best Teams Thrive on Conflict

Career Guide September 21, 2018

The Value of Social Capital: Why the Best Teams Thrive on Conflict

Spending much of your time in an organisation and with the same set of people – with occasional new faces – can breed conflict. Not all organisations are echo chambers and people will have different opinions, beliefs and processes to you.

When these differences arise or clash, people naturally avoid becoming part of the conflict – out of fear and the consequences of retaliation. In other cases, people simply do not voice their opinions or questions to achieve a false sense of harmony.

But did you know that the best teams in the world thrive on conflict?

The value of social capital

Organisations understand that culture defines them. It is hard to manage but culture impacts the business greatly, especially the people in it. But what most organisations fail to realise is that there is an element that plays a crucial role in building effective and efficient organisations: social capital.

It’s not enough to just have “brain power” in your team. Without social capital, you will not gain access to the best ideas. According to Margaret Heffernan, social capital is “trust, knowledge, reciprocity and shared norms that create quality of life and make a group resilient”. OECD, on other hand, defines social capital as the “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups”.

Any company will have a group of brilliant contributors but what encourages them to share ideas, express concerns and discuss each other’s thoughts for better insights is their social connectedness. That connection helps people develop enough concern for the people around them to warn each other of the risks they might run into.

According to Thomas Malone and his team’s study on collective intelligence, groups that excel at problem-solving have three key  traits: equal time/opportunity for members to talk, social sensitivity and the presence of women.

Teams that work well together know that deferring to anyone is not the way to go – you must understand other people’s perspectives and what they have to offer. No one has got everything figured out and for organisations to thrive, teams need to develop the idea of shared success.

Empathy can set the right foundation.

For any social connectedness or social capital to build up, you need to have empathy. Empathy refers to the “ability genuinely to imagine how the world looks through the eyes of others”. If you see situations through the eyes of other people, you can develop multiple perspectives that will allow you to tackle problems/issues better. Likewise, emotional intelligence is just as important. Much like empathy, developing good emotional intelligence allows you to identify and manage your emotions including the emotions of others. Keeping these under control can go a long way for organisations.

Social capital in conflict

Organisations always face ambiguities, changes and surprises. Social capital plays a vital role in creating individuals and companies that are resilient and more capable of handling conflict.

High levels of social capital build enough foundation of trust that allows conflicts to be safe, open and vigorous. When people are more open to the situations of others and have enough concern for the risk others may be exposed to – conflicts become constructive.

While many people recoil from conflict because they fear it will endanger their relationships, the paradox is that honest conflict — during the hard work together — makes social connectedness grow. When we avoid the argument, nothing happens. Only when we both engage in debate is our capacity to see each other’s perspectives realized

Social capital is not as abstract as it sounds. It builds over time and through the simplest of things like:

  • Quick chats by the pantry or at the water cooler
  • “Fika” (Swedish term) – people talking over work and non-work over coffee and cake

What was evident, according to Heffernan, is that what happens between people, even beyond work like brief conversations in the hallway or at the pantry can affect an organisation’s overall productivity. Investing in connections with your co-workers can reduce risk and increase efficiency.

“In organizations with high degrees of social capital, disagreement doesn’t feel dangerous, it is taken as a sign that you care; the best thinking partners don’t confirm your opinions but build on them”.

She also adds: “They know that every idea starts out flawed, incomplete or downright bad. In organizations with high degrees of social capital, conflict, debate and discussion are the means by which it gets better”.

Strive to disagree

It doesn’t mean that we must just foster social connections, and everything will be alright. Social connection is just one part – the other is learning to manage disagreements. Constructive conflict ignites the best ideas.

As said in one of Heffernan’s Ted Talks: “It’s a fantastic model of collaboration — thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators”.

To learn how to manage conflict, we must go beyond seeking people who are just like us. Fight that “neurobiological drive” and seek out those from different disciplines, different backgrounds, different ways of thinking and even experience. It will take a lot of effort and patience to do so but engaging with them will allow you to open your mind to new possibilities.

In Orbium’s case, Angéla Vuong, our HR Advisor, shares some of the ways we can manage conflict  

  • Identifying the issue, trying to understand the source, getting feedbacks of stakeholders on this specific issue
  • Checking the possible solutions to solve the issue (talk to colleagues to check if they had similar experiences so that they can share some tips, do some brainstorming)

Once you identify options, don’t forget to check the potential impact in terms of cost, time, the team and other potential stakeholders. Also, double check what would be the advantages and disadvantages of each option.

It’s natural to avoid conflict – to avoid provoking tension but remember that when we try to break that silence, when we try to see things from different angles and create the necessary conflict that comes with that examination – we allow people around us and ourselves to engage in the very best way of thinking.

It all starts with openness and having the moral courage to do it.