Trust, Social Capital and lessons from West Virginia

Scan 2I want to return to the connection between what people do on the ground and how this comes to affect the culture of an organisation, and in turn how culture comes to influence people.  This time from a different angle, that of social capital.  This should be of major concern for those interested in organisational health and development.

Social capital provides a way of understanding the currency from which trust develops or withers away over time.  Robert Putnam became interested in the idea and history of social capital in his analysis of trust in the US (Putnam, 2000), tracing it back to a 1916 paper by Lyda Hanifan (Hanifan, 1916).  Putnam makes the point that social capital is the fertile soil from which trust can grow.  Hanifan was an educationalist with an interest in the social flux between education and society.  Instead of abstract theory he was interested in the goings on of his local community of West Virginia, USA.

Here he defines social capital as being:

… that in life which tends to make … tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of a people, namely, good will, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit. …

The individual is helpless socially, if left entirely to himself. (p130)

Like other forms of capital, it can grow and develop or be wasted.  So what can be done to nurture this valuable resource?  He points to the value of ‘sociables’, of picnics and community gatherings and having the opportunity to get to know each other; and to form a habit of doing this.  And once this starts to grow and connections are made, the capital increases.  There is also the role of education and the powerful effect of learning together.  Education was not confined to schooling children, but also evening classes for adults.  Hanifan also noted the importance of history and belonging and how this comes to develop individual and group identity.  Even the quality of the local roads attracts his attention.

He paints a picture of an endeavour that requires leadership, organisation and time; not effort that is focused on individual activity, but effort that has its eye firmly set holistically on how it all comes together. Hanifan goes on to say:

If he may come into contact with his neighbour, and they with other neighbours, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living in the whole community.  The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, sympathy, and the fellowship of neighbours.

Note Hanifan’s attention to the dynamic process between the individual and the group.  This is an important point.  For those in a leadership role, there can be no certainty of success, no cause and effect.  In other words there is a complexity in this highly networked process, whereby small interventions might have larger effects than those anticipated, and vice versa. But we can at least increase our chances of success in encouraging the potential for social capital and therefore trust.

Hanifan concludes with the following observation on leadership: ‘It is not what they did for the people that counts for most in what was achieved; it was what they led the people to do for themselves that was really important’ (p138).  In other words, developing social capital is a social endeavour; with good leadership it can be prompted and encouraged.

Hanifan was writing in the context of communities and networks and the implications for leadership.  The challenge for us is to think of this in the context of building trusting relationships in organisations and the leadership challenges that this poses.

Rob Warwick

Hanifan L (1916) The Rural School Community Centre. American Academy of Political and Social Science, 67(May), 130–138.

Putnam R (2000) Bowling Alone – The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.