Posted by: healingtheworkplace | April 10, 2009

Social Capital…What can we learn from bowling alone?

WE need each other…we really do!

The happiness and health of our communities AND our workplaces depend on how connected we are to each other.

And perhaps more importantly the quality of our health and happiness also depend on the strength of our relationships!

In 2000 Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone and in doing so he coined the term “social capital”.

Social capital refers to social networks, norms of reciprocity, mutual assistance and trustworthiness.

Of course Putnam’s research focused on groups of people who were connected socially and geographically, but his findings should be applied to our workplace communities.

We are all part of social networks.

These are our connections to family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. Our networks don’t stop there of course as we are also connected to the networks of all of the people we know.

People often think about their “networks” when they are looking for a job. Remember the old adage? “It’s now what you know but who you know?”

Some of these connections are strong and some are weak  but all have the potential to increase our social capital.

Reciprocity means give and take. Simply put, if I help you I expect you will help me. If I loan you “things” or money I expect the same kindness in return.

Some people are naturally inclined to share what they have…others are more reserved.

Workplaces in which the “norms” of reciprocity suggest that people help each other and share information and ideas are generally more successful than workplaces in which people hoard.

In his research Putnam identified two types of social networks:

  1. Bonding Social Networks (think teams)
  2. Bridging Social Networks (think cross functional teams and other ways for people to engage in dialogue and meaningful conversations)

So, to conclude…workplaces are only as strong and healthy as their “social capital”.

In Bowling Alone Putnam described in detail how disconnected and isolated North Americans have become. The consequences of this disconnection are increased crime, increased mental illness, and decreased health and happiness.

Workers in North America are also experiencing an increase in depression, accidents, and increased stress.  

What can we learn from Bowling Alone?


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