American Association for Physician Leadership

Professional Capabilities

Create Workplace Social Capital for High-Performance Teamwork

David F. Smith, PhD

December 8, 2022


Medical practice leaders interested in increasing team performance can support the development and maintenance of workplace social capital (WSC), which is derived from the networking an employee uses to find connections to people and resources, both within the workplace and outside. People build a bank of WSC that can be employed to improve their work environment. If the workplace is found to be low in WSC, leadership strategies can be used to increase it, if appropriate. Leaders can encourage networking and provide opportunities for the growth of WSC in their team members. Working one-on-one with team members, leaders using empathy and rewards will motivate members to increase and use their WSC to do more and better work.

Do you want your workplace to be one where coworkers will eat you alive? If so, stop reading. Otherwise, learning about workplace social capital (WSC) will improve your practice leadership. WSC is critical to high-performance teamwork and is a key to great organizational outcomes. It is the human capital resource accessed by team members when working with others. WSC is described by three measures of how employees relate in their workplace:

  • Structural: the network of relationships both formal and informal;

  • Quality: whether the relationships are of high or low quality; and

  • Cognitive: the shared knowledge, experiences, and job understanding of the members of the network.(1)

WSC is important for getting work done in three networks: within a team; between teams; and between levels of authority. Within a high-WSC team, team members know their roles and resources. They continually check in with each other to see if they can help out. They ask each other for help and information, especially since they know who can help and who has the experience. There are several ways for WSC to exist between teams:

  • Team-to-team;

  • One individual and a team; and

  • One individual member with another individual on the other team.

High-WSC inter-team relationships provide for a broader sharing of work, knowledge, and support, translating to better organizational outcomes. WSC is important between authority layers as well. Team leaders need to trust that their team is doing the right things the right way, and team members must trust that their leader will provide the resources to get the work done and continue work-related support.(2) This trust underpins social capital earned and maintained over time, leading to high-performance teamwork.

If the team works together to get work done, solve problems, share knowledge, and innovate, then there is high workplace social capital.

You can’t see WSC, but you can know it is there. Its presence is evidenced by staff collaboration, for example. If the team works together to get work done, solve problems, share knowledge, and innovate, then there is high WSC. Each team member will draw on the resources of their network, including their time, knowledge, and support. Just as money in the bank can be drawn on for a large purchase, the bank of capital in their workplace social network can be drawn on as needed. WSC is knowing that if you ask for a favor, for example, you have the expectation the favor will not be an imposition. In the greater scheme, WSC is the collective desire to share within part or all of an organization. This sharing is of resources, including time, as well as ways of working and sharing of values. WSC is the basis for many good outcomes, including satisfaction with work, low voluntary turnover, high productivity, and volunteerism.(1)

There can be barriers keeping WSC quality low, and this isn’t necessarily indicative of a “toxic” work environment. The work itself may not be conducive to using WSC to meet organizational objectives. For example, if the work is routinized, such as processing lab samples, then why would a worker need to draw on their network for help or other resources? But if the lab were dysfunctional (e.g., insufficient supplies, lack of training) then a worker with high-quality networks might succeed by utilizing their network contacts to provide what is needed. Also, the workplace may not be conducive to high-quality WSC. If everyone is busy doing their work, then the time and effort needed to build networks may not exist. Nursing staff who have full patient loads may come to work, take care of patients, and go home. Without intervention by management, networks will not form if they do not do so naturally.

Many human resource development programs improve WSC. Mentoring strongly supports WSC through its natural networking outcomes, allowing new team members to access the resources of the team and leadership. Similar outcomes are achieved through job rotation programs for new and experienced employees. As employees move to various departments and join other teams, they build their network to span across teams and bridge to new-to-them leaders. Other human resources development programs—such as management training classes—bring employees together who otherwise might not naturally meet. The classes present networking opportunities leading to improved WSC. Social events present these opportunities as well. Professional organization involvement is another route to building WSC and may provide for extra-workplace social capital possibilities. Management can facilitate improvement in WSC in a multitude of ways, provided leaders understand the benefits.

How do you create and maintain high-quality WSC? As with most projects to develop human resources through organizational change, there are four steps:

  1. First, establish the current baseline.

  2. Then introduce and implement change.

  3. Next, reward positive responses.

  4. Finally, monitor and adjust as needed.

This means your organization must be competent in analysis, change management, change itself, and human resource maintenance. Perhaps the task of improving WSC will be easy, but the extent to which the organization will have to change must be established first.

Asking team members about WSC is the easiest way to determine existing levels. The use of validated employee surveys(1) with items eliciting how individuals view their team, their management, and their organization is common:

  • Likert-type scored items similar to, “Our team members help each other out when a member has too much to do” measure intra-team WSC.

  • An item such as “Our team works well with the other teams to meet goals” measures inter-team WSC.

  • “Our manager listens to our team to find out what we need to succeed” bridges the levels of authority for inter-level WSC.

Observation and dialogue also are ways to discover WSC problems. Identify where the problems (low WSC) areeither through survey or observation. Address those that can be addressed with available resources.

The first step is to recruit team leaders, because team leaders must fully understand that improvement is needed.

You may find bullying, for example, or mistrust of management, or several of many possibilities. The change process will be an intervention.(3) The first step is to recruit team leaders, because team leaders must fully understand that improvement is needed. Their leadership is foundational to the change process. The team leader will be responsible for preparing their team for change by explaining the what, why, and how of the change process. The leader will teach through formal and informal means what change looks like and guide members to implement change elements. This may be over a short or long period, depending on the magnitude and difficulty of change. The leader is striving for team excellence in the new way of doing things, so progress is measured and success is rewarded. The following example illustrates these steps.

Case Study: Implementing WSC in a Hospital Setting

Imagine a teaching hospital where nursing students and newly graduated nurses are integrated as part of the mission of the hospital. It is observed that the bedside nursing staff resents the intrusion of these inexperienced persons into their daily routines. The gap between mission and reality is dysfunctional and reduces WSC. Implementing a formal mentoring program has been shown to address this problem, given sufficient effort and time.(4) Management recruits the nursing unit managers, who buy into the need for change in the form of the mentoring program. Nursing Unit Manager Taylor agrees to be a team leader to implement the program. Taylor will have to apply leadership skills to keep the team on track during the changes.

Five leadership skills are essential for Taylor to succeed in introducing and managing the mentoring program for the team: inclusion, respecting, rewarding, improvement, and modeling.(2) Let’s take a look at each one and how it applies to Taylor’s leadership of the change process and then generalize to other ways to accomplish the goal of improving WSC:

  • Inclusion: When Taylor introduces the program and requests feedback, this is inclusion. Decisions are discussed so each team member has the opportunity to provide their input and express their feelings, even if the decision is final. Discussion can be in a group setting, but one-on-one is more powerful.(2) The discussion may go smoothly, or perhaps some real pushback will be present. In either case, Taylor will now understand the position of each team member and lead the process accordingly.

  • Respecting: Respecting is the active use of empathy. It is treating the team member as an important individual and relating to how they feel. This develops trust. When Taylor listens closely, recognizing the truth in what is heard, the mentoring program is more likely to succeed based on this mutual trust. Every opportunity to increase the likelihood of success is important.

  • Rewarding: The third essential skill, a powerful leadership skill Taylor will use, is reward. Reward refers to the incentives leaders provide for members to do what needs doing.(2) In some organizations, customizing rewards to individuals is considered a deal with the devil, so some creativity may be necessary to provide rewards each team member will value. Taylor will discover through dialogue with each individual what they consider rewarding. The rewards may be extrinsic, such as cash, or intrinsic such as a “thank you.” A good leader learns what works and uses all available means to fulfill their team members’ needs as rewards for achievements large and small.

  • Improvement: Taylor will promote an atmosphere of continuous improvement in the team. Taylor will show leadership by explaining what is going to happen and why this will improve the team. Taylor should relate this improvement to each member’s personal feelings regarding the change to increase motivation.(2) With good relationships among team members and with Taylor, there will be a desire to improve. Taylor can leverage this desire.

  • Modeling: Taylor will have a chance to model the change using this fifth leadership skill. Leaders do this in two ways to manage change. First is the “show me how to do it” method. Taylor will demonstrate what the mentoring program looks like. Additionally, Taylor could pick a “model team member” and coach them to help lead the mentoring program.(2) Secondly, Taylor will be seen by the team as supportive of their efforts as this affects how team members perceive the value of the changes. Taylor will be cheering on the effort and must stay consistent with that message to model positive behavior.

These leadership skills create trust between the leader and team members.(2) When team members trust their leader and vice versa, the team can identify problems and opportunities. Agreeing on what needs to change to improve WSC is the foundation for motivating each team member to undertake the “how.” Through inclusive discussion, the goals are mutually understood (and possibly modified) to achieve the desired result. The team member is the person probably most affected by the changes, and by respecting their feelings about the goals and the process, the trust relationship is improved leading to goal achievement.

Taylor meets one-on-one with each team member to describe what is being done, how, and why. One meeting is with Tracy, an experienced and valuable team member. Tracy resists the plan because “There’s barely enough time on a shift to get my work done as it is! I can’t spend the time explaining everything and holding hands.” So what is the problem that has surfaced? Taylor could come to a number of conclusions, such as:

  • There might be a job structure problem;

  • There may be a resourcing issue;

  • There may be a time-management challenge; or

  • Tracy may have an attitude that mentoring is not worth the time.

The point here is that, absent a trust-based private discussion, none of this might have come out, leading to failure. Taylor and Tracy work through the obstacles successfully by exchanging views and ideas to agree on how the mentoring program will be integrated into Tracy’s workday. Good leadership provides for a win–win outcome.


Improving WSC improves the workplace and improves results. It is worth working to remove negative aspects of a workplace and build positive relationships among team members, between teams, and with supervisors. Knowing that WSC exists provides practice leaders the opportunity to identify what they want to change and strategically implement change processes. Ask team members how they feel about how their team works together and how they work with others in the organization. Ask them how they work with you. Take action to remove barriers to improving WSC. Proactively implement programs that positively affect the networking and sharing within teams, between teams, and with team leaders and their team members.

Improving the workplace environment includes opportunities to improve WSC. Humans are social beings, so provide ways for employees to connect and communicate. Consider workplace-based clubs and charitable involvement. Toastmasters International is a great way to break down barriers and costs little. Employer-sponsored sports league teams generate goodwill and camaraderie, elements of WSC. Management can provide space and opportunity for discussion groups, both work-based (cafeteria committee) and social (book club). One idea is to make it possible for employees to team up to grow a community garden where they can share ideas and produce. Find out what team members would like to do. Be creative and let your employees build these sharing opportunities with management support. This is how leaders assist in creating and maintaining high-quality workplace social capital.


  1. Meng A, Clausen T, Borg V. The association between team‐level social capital and individual‐level work engagement: differences between subtypes of social capital and the impact of intra‐team agreement. Scand J Psychol. 2018;59:198-205.

  2. Smith D. How Successful Teams Work: What Science Says About Leadership High-Performance Teamwork. Lioncrest Publications; 2018.

  3. Henderson A, Schoonbeek S, Ossenberg C, et al. Achieving success in intervention studies: an analysis of variable staff engagement across three midwifery settings. J Clin Nurs. 2014;23:1653-1661

  4. Materne M, Henderson A, Eaton E. Building workplace social capital: a longitudinal study of student nurses’ clinical placement experiences. Nurse Educ Pract. 2017;26:109-114.

David F. Smith, PhD

Director of Research, Five Star Leadership, Oahu Adventures Foundation, Inc., 6960 Feldspar Place, Carlsbad, CA 92009, and author of How Successful Teams Work: What Science Says About Leadership and High-Performance Teamwork (Lioncrest Publishing, 2018); phone: 619-876-6343; e-mail: davidsmith@​

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