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Discover the type of capital that’s most valuable in today’s workplace

July 22, 2022 - 12 min read

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What is social capital and what does it mean at work?

What is the concept of cultural capital?

The bottom line

Most of us are familiar with the concepts of financial capital and human capital. They’re the resources that companies draw on to produce goods and services. They represent a company’s foundation for generating value and profits today and continuing to be viable and relevant in the future. 

But for an individual in today’s labor market — whether you’re in the midst of changing jobs, looking to re-energize your career, or simply wanting to strengthen your job security — it isn’t about your financial resources or even your skills. Another type of capital is even more important. Two types, in fact: are social capital and cultural capital.  

Depending on your career stage, you have probably encountered some aspect of office politics. People form cliques, bosses value some skills over others, and some personality types thrive while others face an uphill struggle.

You probably also know something about the company culture. And if you’re considering a new job, ask former employees, read company reviews, and discuss it during your interview.

But even if you’re a veteran of office dynamics and feel up-to-speed on company culture, you’re leaving potential on the table and missing opportunities to set yourself up for success if you don’t understand the types of capital that matter at work. 

Having a solid grasp of the differences between social capital and cultural capital and how they function in your workplace is critical to your success. So is learning how to build and use these important forms of capital.

Thankfully, we’ve put together a guide on social capital versus cultural capital. Here’s everything you need to know about workplace social and cultural capital.

What is social capital and what does it mean at work?

Social capital refers to the network and strength of relationships and connections people in a group have that allow them to interact more effectively and productively.

Social capital helps members of the network achieve more or reach objectives more easily than if they weren’t part of the group. Sociologist and theorist Pierre Bourdieu first introduced “social capital” in the 1980s. 

Social capital, unlike economic capital, is symbolic — it's not about money or economic assets. Rather, it's the sum and quality of social interactions within a group and how effectively that collective human capital can be put to use.

Bourdieu’s concept tends to be at the group level — like an office, department, or company. The norms and mechanisms that shape social capital differ across groups and it’s worth trying to understand what drives social capital at your own organization. 

For example, in a big consulting firm, social capital was built off always knowing the latest “inside information” from leadership and being able to make introductions and broker connections across the firm. In contrast, at a tech company I worked with, social capital came from having technical chops and the ability (and willingness) to help coworkers crack really difficult problems.  

As you can imagine, this is impossible to measure objectively. Knowing what social capital means doesn’t make you an expert. But we can evaluate a workplace’s social world based on two primary indicators. 

  1. The aggregate benefits of social relations within a group. In the best offices, everyone benefits from their relationships and membership in the social structure. This happens through things like:

An office or workplace falls apart without these elements. When the social structure delivers outsized benefits to a small group, the aggregate benefits of social capital for the organization are less. Employees don’t trust each other. They don’t work well together. Everyone assumes the worst in their colleagues, and the disappearance of goodwill means no one steps up when needed. 

Joining a workplace with low social capital or where you don’t understand the social capital and can’t build it will work against you. Uncooperative colleagues make it hard to complete projects, and you can feel lonely due to a lack of community.

  1. The shared values and goals bring a group together. On a healthy team, the underlying shared values are clear. People won’t always agree with each other, but they’re trying to pull in the same direction. People share a bond based on their mutual passion for a project or their alignment with the corporate mission. 

If you can’t easily identify the shared work values or goals of your new or existing workplace, you’ll struggle to build social capital there. Without social capital, it’s each person for themselves.

You’ll personally achieve less of your own goals and collectively fall short of organizational objectives. This will further damage your social capital because you won’t benefit from everyone working together.

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How to increase your social capital

For sociologists, the concept of social capital is about groups. For any one of us, however, we can think about our own social capital relative to the groups that we are part of. These questions can help you assess yours:

  • How good are my relationships and connections within my team, my department, and across departments and functions? Could I deepen these relationships?
  • What is my reputation and influence? 
  • Can I motivate resources to help achieve my objectives? Are colleagues inclined to help me? 
  • Do I hear about important news or am I often in the dark? 
  • Do I build strategic new relationships? Are my interactions deep and long-term or transactional?

If these questions leave you feeling like your social capital might be lacking, you can improve. Learning to build and use social capital can improve your performance, job satisfaction, and career success. 

Networking is one part of increasing the benefits of being part of a group. Meet other people in your industry, take your colleagues out for coffee, and diversify your social relationships to expand the network. Listen and pay attention to what others need and what they value.

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Think about what you can offer to others. Whether it’s new business opportunities or a new job, your extended social network will benefit.

Also, it seems simple, but building social capital often requires some investment of time. If you treat all of your interactions as transactional, you won’t have the relationships or reputation to draw on in the future. 

A mentor, BetterUp coach, or coaching circle can also help you understand how to network strategically and maximize your social capital.

What is the concept of cultural capital?

Hopefully, the value of social capital is now clear, but it becomes even more valuable in your career when you combine it with cultural capital. 

So what is the concept of cultural capital in the workplace? 

Cultural capital, broadly, is about the values, knowledge, skills, and ideas that are valued in a given culture, society, or social group. An individual that possesses these values, knowledge, skills, and ideas — or who understands them and can develop some of them — will be more able to thrive and succeed in that culture or group. 

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Cultural capital determines both social class and social mobility. It’s a way that cultures, including industries and workplaces, attribute value to a person.

You probably already have an idea of some of the cultural capital that’s valued in your environment.

And what is an example of cultural capital? In a big law firm, formal education from a specific set of schools and cultural knowledge of the legal profession will tend to lead to more opportunities, career success, and social status. 

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Your cultural capital depends both on whether you understand what is valued in your environment and whether you have the right skills and attributes to achieve status in your environment.

Forms of cultural capital

We can understand this concept better by looking at the types of cultural capital.

Embodied cultural capital refers to the knowledge and skills you’ve acquired over the years. Your experience will make you more valuable to employers as you grow in your profession. If you work in public relations, you may know how to plan events, coordinate national campaigns, and network with the media. These skills give you status in the industry and boost your marketability.

Objectified cultural capital, also known as the objectified state of cultural capital, refers to material objects with cultural significance. We just have to look at America’s celebrity culture to see this in action; Hollywood stars wear fancy clothes, roll up in expensive cars, own famous art pieces, and live in large homes. These are all symbols of cultural status.

Institutionalized cultural capital is about the reputation of an organization. Harvard University holds a special status in the education system due to its social and cultural influence, so if you attend Harvard, you inherit some of that status.

How to grow your cultural capital

To grow your cultural capital, you first need to identify what your industry values. What skills do they look for? What kind of education? What personality traits? 

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Answering these questions will give you a roadmap for your career. You can make a plan and develop the necessary skills to increase your value in the industry.

The bottom line

Now that you understand social capital versus cultural capital, you can leverage both forms of capital to your advantage. Look for people who will add value to your network.

Make sure your office works for you as much as you work for them, and invest in skills that make you valuable in your industry and workplace. These strategies will help you excel in your career.

And if you need help, BetterUp is here. Our coaches will work with you to sharpen your skills and maximize your potential. Let’s discover who you can become.

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Published July 22, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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