From the Center for
Positive Organizational Scholarship
WORKING PAPER SERIES
Enabling Positive Social Capital
in Organizations =
Professor of Management and Organizations; Director, Center for
Positive Organizational Scholarship; Professor of Sociology; Faculty
Associate, Institute for Social Research; Faculty Associate, Nonprofit
and Public Management Center
Jane E. Dutton
William Russell Kelly Professor of Business Administration;
Professor of Management and Organizations; Professor of Psychology
LEADING IN THOUGHT AND ACTION
Chapter to appear in
Relationships at Work:
Building a Theoretical and
Research Foundation. J.
Dutton and B. Ragins
(Eds.). Lawrence Erlbaum,
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Enabling Positive Social Capital in Organizations
Revised August 2005
Chapter to appear in Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a
Theoretical and Research Foundation. J. Dutton and B. Ragins (Eds.). Lawrence
Erlbaum, Inc., 2006
Wayne Baker and Jane Dutton
This chapter identifies and elaborates organizational practices and social
mechanisms that create and sustain positive social capital in work organizations. It adds
to the understanding of positive relationships at work by considering the resource-
producing capabilities of high-quality connections and reciprocity. By being in this form
of connection and practicing this type of interaction, dyads, teams, and organizations
create valuable assets, such as trust, confidence, affirmation, energy, and joy. These are
durable resources that have impact beyond the initial connecting point between two or
more individuals (Fredrickson, 1998). This chapter shows how two forms of positive
social capital (high-quality connections and reciprocity) expand the capacities of both
individuals and groups. Further, it identifies key enablers of each form of positive social
capital. Finally, it articulates the underlying mechanisms (motivation and opportunity
structures) linking enablers and outcomes.
Social capital refers to the resources that inhere in and flow through networks of
relationships (Coleman, 1988; Adler and Kwon, 2002). These resources include
knowledge, information, ideas, advice, help, opportunities, contacts, material goods,
services, financial capital, emotional support, and goodwill (Adler and Kwon, 2002).
Social capital can be positive or negative. For example, a group inside a company can
band together and use their collective power for their own gain, as engineers in a tobacco
plant did (Crozier, 1964).1 Or, investment managers may favor their friends and family
in the allocation of profits to investors, using money stolen from other investors (Baker
and Faulkner, 2004). To be positive, we must consider the means by which social capital
is created, and the ends to which social capital is used. Social capital is positive if the
means by which social capital is created expands the “generative capacity” of people and
groups. “Capacity” refers to the abilities of people and groups to achieve their personal
and professional goals. Capacity is “generative” when it is able to reproduce and renew
itself, expand abilities, and enable the combination and recombination of resources in
new and novel ways. Social capital is positive if helps people grow, thrive, and flourish
in organizations and thereby achieve their goals in new and better ways. For example,
acts of kindness and generosity between two people expand each person’s emotional
resources (e.g., joy or gratefulness) and openness to new ideas and influences (Dutton
and Heaphy, 2003). If a pair uses this openness to innovate, create better solutions to
problems, or work more efficiently or effectively, then this dyadic interaction has created
positive social capital that was used for positive purposes. Even if these ends are
achieved only in part, social capital is still positive if the purpose is positive.
Our chapter is organized around two fundamental forms of positive social capital
in organizations: high-quality connections and reciprocity. In brief, a high-quality
connection or HQC refers to a particular form of positive connection between two people.
Like any HQC, a work relationship can be high-quality even if the interaction is short.
Basic or two-party reciprocity involves the mutual exchange of aid and benefit between
1 In this case, the plant had recently automated. The engineers threw out the operation manuals and made
modifications to the machinery. This way, they could not be replaced, and management was forced to rely
on the engineers and acquiesce to their demands.
two people; generalized reciprocity is a system of mutual exchange, aid, and benefit
among members of a network. There are, of course, other forms of positive social
capital. We focus on these forms for two reasons. First, each describes a pervasive form
of social capital. For example, all treatments of social capital, regardless of discipline,
identify reciprocity as an essential element. Second, while rarely explicitly defined, all of
the forms of human ties that compose social capital vary in quality. Together, both forms
link micro (the dyad) and macro (the system), revealing the essential complementary of
the two. HQCs and reciprocity are mutually reinforcing: HQCs foster the practice of
reciprocity; reciprocity builds new connections and improves the quality of connections.
They both represent forms of “positive deviance” in organizations (see Figure 1). Positive
deviance is a term used in Positive Organizational Scholarship to refer to extraordinary
positive outcomes and the means that produce them (Cameron, Dutton, and Quinn 2003).
Applied to social capital, positive deviance means that social capital is used to achieve
extraordinary results, and that it does so by building and broadening the generative
capacity of individuals and groups. After defining each form of positive social capital
below, we identify several key practices that enable it by increasing the motivation to
engage in HQCs and reciprocity, and by creating opportunity structures for both forms of
TWO FORMS OF POSITIVE SOCIAL CAPITAL AND THEIR OUTCOMES
HQCs are connections made between two people that are marked by vitality,
mutuality and positive regard (Dutton and Heaphy, 2003). We intentionally use the word
connection instead of relationship to assert that these interactions can be momentary and
short-term, rather than being enduring and lasting. In a high quality connection, both
participants feel more alive and experience a heightened sense of energy. High quality
connections are marked by a particular subjective experience for both people in them, and
connection is distinguished by several capacities (Dutton and Heaphy, 2003). First, high
quality connections have higher emotional carrying capacity which is indicated by both
the expression of more emotion by people in this kind of a tie, and more variety in the
emotions expressed when compared to people in a lower quality tie. Second, a high
quality connection has greater levels of tensility which is the capacity to bend and
withstand stress in the face of setback or challenges. Finally, a high quality connection
between two people is marked by a higher capacity for connectivity. Connectivity is a
term used by Losada (1999) and Losada and Heaphy (2004) to capture a connection’s
generativity and openness to new ideas and influences, and its capacity to deflect actions
or behaviors that would stifle or hinder these generative processes.
As implied by their defining features, high quality connections have lasting
impact on people and organizations (Dutton, 2003) as they enhance physiological
functioning (Heaphy and Dutton, 2005; Reiss, Sheldon, Gable. Roscoe and Ryan, 2000),
enable heightened engagement in work (Kahn, 1990), facilitate coordination of
interdependent people or units (Gittell, 2003), promote learning through heightened
positive emotions (Fredrickson, 1998), strengthen organizational attachment and
commitment (Labianca, Umpress and Kaufmann, 2000), foster individual resilience and
growth (Carmeli, 2005)and facilitate individual and project performance (Cross, Baker
and Parker, 2002; Losada and Heaphy, 2004).
The reciprocity principle operates when a person does something of value for you
“without expecting anything immediately in return and perhaps without even knowing
you, confident that down the road you or someone else will return the favor” (Putnam,
2000:134). Reciprocity is a form of cooperation that involves the exchange of resources
between two or more people. Reciprocity does not involve legal contracts or formal
agreements; often, the expectation of repayment is vague, undefined, or tacit. Because
future repayment is not formally specified, reciprocity is sometimes defined as a
combination of short-term altruism and long-term self interest (Taylor, 1982). However,
it is not necessary to invoke altruism to define reciprocity. Systems of reciprocity can
arise and thrive even when all participants are only self-interested (e.g., Axelrod, 1984;
Reciprocity can be present in varying degrees, and it can involve varying numbers
of people. Basic reciprocity involves the exchange of resources between two people.
This is also called “two-party” reciprocity because the exchange and expectation of
repayment are limited to two people. Generalized reciprocity occurs in larger systems
and involves more people. Generalized reciprocity is sometimes called “third-party
reciprocity” because the exchange of help and assistance takes place between three or
more people in a chain of reciprocity. For example, when John Clendenin managed the
logistics group at Xerox, he instituted a practice called “huddles” (Podolny 1992). If a
person needed help, he or she could round up the people needed and request a 15-minute
huddle. Those asked to help dropped what they were doing and participated, knowing
that when they needed help in the future, they too could call huddles. Generalized
reciprocity exists in degrees. At the pinnacle, people willingly help anyone who needs
it—even if it hasn’t been requested yet. For example, at IDEO, people routinely offer
their expertise and insight to others, even if they are not officially assigned to these
projects (Gada, Glover, and Tsai 2004). Generalized reciprocity is a hallmark of
communities of practice. “Members of a healthy community of practice have a sense that
making the community more valuable is to the benefit of everyone,” notes Wenger,
McDermott, and Snyder 2002:37). “They know that their contributions will come back
to them. This is not a direct exchange mechanism of a market type where commodities
are traded. Rather, it is a pool of goodwill—of ‘social capital’ to use the technical term—
that allows people to contribute to the community while trusting that at some point, in
some form, they too will benefit.” Simply put, people help others, knowing that others
will help them when they need it.
The practice of generalized reciprocity expands capacity by increasing the
volume, velocity, and efficiency of exchanges. It expands capacity by increasing the
flow of resources through networks, by enabling the combination and recombination of
resources, and by increasing the probability that the right resource will get to the
appropriate need. Finally, it increases capacity by elevating trust and improving the
connectivity and cohesion of a group. A wealth of research demonstrates the vital role of
generalized reciprocity for the health of communities and organizations, as well as for
individual health and well-being (e.g., Brown, Nesse, Vinokur, and Smith, 2003).
Generalized reciprocity is essential for the strength of democracy and the economic
development of nations (e.g., Putnam, 2000). Similarly, it is essential for healthy
corporate cultures and business performance, and leadership plays a key role in creating it
(Adler and Kwon, 2002; Baker 2000; Cohen and Prusak, 2000; Flynn, 2003; Kouses and
Posner, 2002). For example, reciprocity improves productivity, promotes learning, and
builds a climate and culture of trust (Flynn, 2003). By implementing some of the
enablers we discuss below, such as collaborative practices and technologies, we have
observed that generalized reciprocity improves the efficiency and effectiveness of
resource exchange. It enables groups to discover new resources, solve more problems
faster, and save time and money.
ENABLERS OF POSITIVE SOCIAL CAPITAL
In general, an enabler is any practice or condition that makes a process or state
more likely to occur. Enablers differ from causes in that they suggest a probabilistic but
not deterministic connection between one condition and another. We propose that
enablers of positive social capital work through two major means: motivation and
opportunity structures. More specifically, the enablers impact positive social capital by
either increasing employees’ motivation to engage in HQCs or in reciprocity, and/or by
providing opportunities for employees to engage in HQC and/or generalized reciprocity.
We focus on clusters of organizational practices that promote positive social
capital. By practices we mean the recurrent, materially bounded, situated activities of a
particular unit or organization (e.g., Orlikowski, 2002). Practices refer to routine ways of
doing in an organization that create and are created by structures (Giddens, 1984). More
recently, there is recognition that everyday practices in organizations cultivate resources
and resourcefulness in organizations (Feldman, 2004; Spreitzer et al., 2004; Worline et
al., 2004). Consistent with these perspectives, the practices we consider are patterns of
“everyday doing” that produce positive social capital in organizations by motivation for
or opportunity to engage in HQCs and/or reciprocity.
We argue that various organizational practices activate and affirm employees’
motivation to participate in connections and a system of relationships that are generative.
For example, organizational practices that foster employee recognition motivate HQC
and generalized reciprocity by affecting people’s perceptions of each other , attracting
them to each other and instilling expectations of mutual regard. In addition, we assume
that the motivation to relate or connect in a certain way is more likely to create positive
social capital if employees have the means and chance to connect which is captured by
the idea of “opportunities to engage”. The motivation and opportunity to engage in high
quality connections increase when a practice facilitates respectful engagement
(interacting in a way that communicates a sense of worth and value), evokes higher
trusting (interacting in way that communicates a belief in the integrity and reliability of
another’s actions) or strengthens task enabling (interacting in a way that facilitates the
other person’s capacity to perform their task more effectively). All three of these forms of
interacting make higher quality connections more likely (Dutton, 2003) and thereby
explains why some organizational practices build this form of positive social capital.
Reciprocity is natural: people are “hard wired” for it; it is rooted in evolution,
because it improves survival; and many argue that is it was what made society possible
(e.g., Seabright, 2004; Gouldner, 1960; Leakey, 1978; Cialdini. 1993). Yet many
obstacles get in the way, such as incentive systems that measure and reward only
individual efforts, separation in time and space, negative cultures, and so forth. These
obstacles reduce the motivation to engage in generalized reciprocity and decrease the
opportunities to do so. However, the natural tendency to engage in reciprocity can
overcome obstacles to it. For example, business unit managers at British Petroleum have
developed an informal system of reciprocity, evident in their informal “peer assists” and
“personnel transfers” (Pfeffer and Sutton 2000:216-7). Unit heads will loan their talented
people to other units. BP, however, does not provide formal incentives for these
practices and does not measure the results. Furthermore, the lender loses the
contributions of the people on loan. By making loans, unit leaders know they can make
requests for people when they need them. Though people can overcome obstacles and
still engage in reciprocity, enablers increase the frequency and extent of these forms of
Enablers exert their positive effects when they increase motivation, opportunities,
or both. A specific enabler may affect only one—motivation or opportunities. For
example, the establishment of a formal system to measure and reward collaboration will
increase the motivation to engage in reciprocity, but (without other changes) opportunity
structures would remain the same as before. Participatory selection practices increase
opportunities for reciprocity (because these practices expand social networks and
awareness of others’ needs) but they do not by themselves increase the motivation to
engage in reciprocity. Of course, the most potent enablers increase motivation and
opportunities (see below for examples).
Table 2 summarizes the arguments for the “main effects” of six clusters of social
capital enablers. (A blank cell in the matrix indicates the absence of a main effect,
though there may be a minor effect). These social capital enablers are illustrative and not
exhaustive. They bring to light the intriguing possibility that everyday ways of doing in
an organization cultivate the quality of social capital, which in turn, is associated with
many desirable individual and collective outcomes.
Some Enablers of Positive Social Capital
Organizations are distinctive in the practices that create or destroy positive social
capital. From the moment that employees begin to engage with an organization, until the
day an employee exits, practices cultivate or eliminate certain conditions for interaction
(Baker, 2000) that are the foundation of positive social capital. We identify, describe and
illustrate six clusters of practices below, using them as a vehicle for unpacking the
theoretical mechanisms underlying the creation of positive social capital. Some of the
practices are what organizational scholars might call human resource practices (selection,
socialization, evaluation, rewards), while others are more focused on everyday work
practices (conduct of meetings, collaborative technologies, practices of interpersonal
helping) that undergird the conduct of work. There are other classes of enablers that we
might consider—e.g., formal structure, mentoring programs, leadership behaviors, and
physical architecture (Baker, 2000; Cross and Parker, 2004; Dutton, 2003; Ragins and
Verbos, this volume), but due to space limits we do not consider them here.
In practice, multiple enablers often appear together, creating an organizational
system that fosters positive social capital. In organizations with high positive social
capital, these enablers are practices that are institutionalized along with a set of norms
and values. Moreover, there may be congruency across practices, so that it is unlikely
that one would be established without others. While we discuss each enabler separately,
note that just changing one may not improve positive social capital. For those who wish
to put these enablers into practice, we advise a systems perspective in which these six
(and others that we have not enumerated) are considered together.
1. Relational Selection
Beginnings matter. How an organization recruits and selects its employees shape
the terms on which people in an organizational initially connect. Selection practices leave
their imprint on employees’ expectations and images of their work organization. From
the point of first contact, selection processes are powerful shapers of employees’ future
behavior patterns. Selection practices also are potent carriers of symbolic messages about
what are desired employee attributes and what are valued ways of interrelating.
Two features of an organization’s selection practices are particularly conducive to
building positive social capital. First, selection practices that put a premium on hiring
people for interpersonal skills and strengths shape the probability that people build high
quality connections. For example, some organizations explicitly select on an individual’s
team-building competences, communication skills or conflict management capabilities
Other organizations select on individuals for how have demonstrate collaborative
behavior. For example, Cross and Parker (2004) describe an organization that uses
group problem solving tasks during selection to favor individuals who excel in this form
of collaborative skill. Researchers who have studied and articulated the idea of relational
practice (e.g., Fletcher, 1999) have identified a host of relational skills that if used as a
basis for employee selection, are likely to increase the motivation for and opportunity to
engage in both the building of high quality connections and generalized reciprocity. For
example, Fletcher (this volume) identifies empathic competence (ability to understand
others’ experiences and perspectives), emotional competence (ability to understand and
interpret emotional data), authenticity (ability to access and express one’s own thoughts
and feelings), and fluid expertise (ability to move easily from expert to non-expert role)
as skills that foster what she calls a relational stance, that facilitates growth-enhancing
(high quality) connections between people. If people are routinely selected for
membership in an organization using these kinds of criteria, they are likely to be more
motivated to and capable of engaging in respectful engagement, task enabling or trusting
which are three forms of interacting that build high quality connections. In addition,
selection practices that favor relational skills further motivate employees to form high
quality connections because the practices cultivate a model of desirable interacting which
others copy and imitate.. Thus, selection practices that favor people with relational skills
directly and indirectly motivate high quality connections by affecting the supply of
people who are skilled in interacting this way and by activating a modeling or imitation
dynamic that further spreads high quality connecting behaviors.
A second selection practice that enables the building of positive social capital
involves participatory selection practices, which as the name denotes means that multiple
people are involved in selecting an individual to join the organization. This type of
participatory practice means that people acquire a stake in helping someone succeed if
they have had input in their selection. This motivation is more likely to increase people’s
investment in the new recruit, increasing trusting and task enabling; making the situation
ripe for building high quality connections. At the same time, joint participation in the
selection of a new recruit means more people have opportunities to connect with the
employee, jump-starting the possibility of building higher quality connections.
Selecting on relational skills influences the practice of generalized reciprocity
primarily though motivation: People who have good relational skills from the start are
more likely to understand the importance of generalized reciprocity and to be willing to
engage in it, compared with those will poor relational skills. Participatory selection
practices are a hallmark of companies with rich social capital, such as UPS, Capital
Partners (pseudonym of a commercial real estate development firm), Russell Reynolds
(executive recruiters), and many others (Baker, 2000; Cohen and Prusak, 2000).
Participatory selection practices lay the initial groundwork for generalized reciprocity,
and exert their influence primarily through the creation of opportunities to engage in it.
Reciprocity involves exchange, exchange requires knowledge of needs and resources, and
this knowledge is transferred via social networks. Participatory selection practices create
early opportunities for social contact, which increases interpersonal knowledge about
needs and contributions. And, these practices expand a person’s network of contacts,
enabling one to spot and act on more opportunities to engage in generalized reciprocity.
2. Relational Socialization
Socialization describes the formal and informal processes that are used to bring
new organizational members on board in an organization (Louis, 1980). An
organization’s practices are more relational when they provide multiple connecting
opportunities for a new member to meet “old” members, the connecting opportunities are
substantive (allowing for authentic communication), when others are specifically
rewarded from bringing someone on board, and new employees are well-equipped with
the information and contacts that they need in order to do their job well (Dutton, 2003;
Fernandez, Castilla and Moore, 2000).
Socialization processes that rotate people though multiple departments when they
first enter an organization, actively jumpstart new entrants’ opportunities to build HQCs
(Cross and Parker, 2004). In addition, if the organization’s practices introduce the new
recruit in ways that authentically and meaningfully allow others to value a new person,
these practices cultivate high-quality connecting by creating a foundation for trusting and
respectful engagement. Formal mentoring programs are good examples; not only do they
build HQCs between mentors and mentees, but such programs facilitate
“intergenerational” reciprocity as former mentees becomes mentors (see Ragins and
Verbos, this volume). Some organizations provide specific occasions for people to meet
a new recruit, and also equip organizational members with extensive useful information
about a newcomer’s background experiences or talents. The organizations facilitate new
members’ telling of their story about who they are, which are powerful means for
connecting. “By revealing vulnerabilities and creating empathy ‘I stories’ build trust”
(Putnam and Feldstein, 2003, p. 181). The use of these kinds of practices also provides
more opportunities for connecting under conditions in which the connections are likely to
be higher quality. These kinds of socialization practices stand in sharp contrast to
organizations where new recruits, or people on temporary assignments, are left on their
own to navigate a new organizational context and to introduce themselves to others on an
“as needed” basis (Dutton, 2003).
Relational socialization practices increase the motivation to engage in the proper
uses of generalized reciprocity by decreasing the motivation to engage in the misuses and
abuses of reciprocity. The social rule of reciprocity is so overpowering that it can be
misused to create unwanted debts and trigger unfair exchanges (Cialdini, 1993; Baker,
2000). Cialdini (1993:30–36) describes several unethical techniques and practices that
“compliance professionals” use to unfairly invoke the principle of reciprocity. Relational
socialization practices communicate the norm of proper generalized reciprocity as they
communicate the prohibitions against its misuses and abuses. Further, relational
socialization practices model appropriate reciprocity behaviors, such as observing acts of
contribution and helping. For example, a global pharmaceutical firm incorporated
generalized reciprocity in its high-performance teams program. Among other purposes,
this program helped to socialize newcomers (and reinforce for old timers) about the
proper uses of generalized reciprocity.
Relational socialization practices create opportunities to engage in generalized
reciprocity by expanding knowledge of needs, resources, and possibilities of exchange in
the organization. These socialization practices expand networks of HQCs, creating new
opportunities to practice generalized reciprocity. The example of the pharmaceutical firm
noted above had this effect as well: Participants made an expanding number of new
HQCs, and discovered many new opportunities to help one another through the practice
of generalized reciprocity. According to evaluations of the program, participants
attributed hundreds of thousands of dollars of value and thousands of hours saved to the
practice of generalized reciprocity.
3. Rewarding Relational Skills
In organizations designed for the creation of positive social capital, people are not
only selected on relational skills, but they are also meaningfully rewarded for their
development and strengthening. The rewarding of relational skills may be informal (e.g.,
praise or on-the-spot recognition) or formal (requiring more elaborated and explicit
monitoring and measurement systems). Having practices that reward relational skills also
means having a capacity to monitor and assess their development and having some way
of assessing improvements. For example, organizations that include 360-degree feedback
on whether a person provides effective support for others or whether a person displays
empathetic or emotional competence (two of Fletcher’s relational skills) would have a
basis for monitoring, assessing and rewarding relational skills .One could imagine real
variance across organizations in the way that this feedback is done, and in the degree to
which it motivates individuals to display and improve relational skills.
Where individuals receive meaningful rewards for displays or improvements of
these skills, one would expect to see people more motivated to create high quality
connections (as the skills necessary to build them are clearly valued). At the same time,
because the system is designed to detect effective relational skill development, one would
expect more formal and informal opportunities to emerge for building these forms of
Practices involving the rewarding for relational skills do not have to be a formal,
grand system to make a difference in building positive social capital (Dutton, 2003). In
many organizations, informal, smaller rewards such as public spot awards, can be
effective in creating the conditions for creating positive social capital. A well-known
example is Southwest Airlines which supports the granting “agent of the month awards”
that are fully determined by fellow employees, and given to employees who make
outstanding efforts to enable the success of others, and the airline as a whole (Gittell,
Practicing generalized reciprocity is itself a relational skill. Rewarding the
development and strengthening of relational skills increases the motivation to engage in
generalized reciprocity. Even for those who are favorably disposed to engage in it, many
do not know how to engage this way. It is often necessary to demonstrate the practice of
generalized reciprocity, and to provide opportunities to experiment with it. The global
pharmaceutical company mentioned above provided experiential training to develop and
strengthen relational skills specifically aimed at promoting generalized reciprocity.
4. Use of Group Incentives
One of the single biggest obstacles to positive social capital is the incentive
system (e.g., Baker, 2000: 191-192). Many leaders hope for positive social capital but
reward only individual performance. As Cross and Parker (2004:125) note, the most
important question to ask is, “Do you reward collaborative behaviors or focus heavily on
individual accomplishment?” Typical incentive systems focus on individual
accomplishment and not collaboration and thus fail to promote high levels of positive
The use of group incentives in addition to individual incentives shapes the context
for positive social capital. By group incentives we mean the linking of rewards to group-
level rather than individual–level outcomes. For example, companies like Nucor, which
have a significant proportion of employees’ variable pay tied to team-level outcomes,
create and maintain conditions conducive to the generation of positive social capital
(Collins, 2001). When team level- pay is operational, individuals are more likely to be
attuned to treating each other in ways that generate HQCs. For example, with this type of
pay scheme there are incentives to enable the successful performance of other teammates
because there it directly contributes to one’s own rewards. Thus, task enabling is more
likely to take place when group incentives exist, and group members are more attentive
to, and over time, more skilled at facilitating each other’s performance.
Generalized reciprocity aligns individual and collective, and at times, can even
blur the distinction (Baker, 2000). As noted above, it is possible for systems of
generalized reciprocity to arise even when participants are only self-interested (e.g.,
Axelrod, 1984; Seabright, 2004), but it is much more likely if group incentives are added
to individual incentives. Doing so increases the motivation to engage in generalized
reciprocity. When people know their contributions to the welfare of others will be
monitored and rewarded, they are more likely to practice generalized reciprocity and to
look for opportunities to do so.
5. Relational Meeting Practices
Meetings are a dominant social arena for the conduct of work in organizations. They
are major sites for interaction—both virtual and face-to-face. They are social forums in
which people in organizations spend a significant amount of time. They often bring
people together physically and socially, which are conditions ripe for a heightened sense
of connection (Homans, 1961) as well as rapport-building. They are the places where
people share narratives, personal and collective, that social theorists have argued are so
important to the building of social capital (Putnam and Feldstein, 2003).
Organizations vary considerably in both the qualities of the space allocated to conduct
meetings and in the relational practices that typify how the meetings are conducted. For
example, some organizations make extra efforts to allow for face-to-face meetings, such
as UPS and Hewlett-Packard (Cohen and Prusak, 2001) because there is an explicit
valuing of “good conversational spaces”. Other organizations go to real efforts to do the
background preparatory work to enable each person to enter a meeting better equipped to
be able to add value. They do this by letting people know what the meeting will cover,
inviting people to meaningfully contribute, and giving people adequate time to prepare.
Relational practices in meetings that facilitate HQCs include encouraging listening,
equipping individuals with information and opportunities to contribute, and providing
opportunities for people to interact that are playful and fun (Dutton, 2003). Meetings in
which people are encouraged to meaningfully contribute, where there are norms for
respectful treatment of each other’s inputs, and where people have chances to problem
solve in ways that enhance the performance of the collective (e.g., a unit or the
organization as a whole) are conditions that are more likely to create and affirm HQCs.
Relational meeting practices foster the practice of generalized reciprocity by
providing new and more venues and occasions for exchange. The quarterly management
meetings at Nucor Corporation are good examples, as Cross and Parker (2004:127)
describe: “…people read material beforehand and use their precious time together for
collaborative problem solving. For example, employees form teams from various
functions or physical locations, and these groups not only solve problems but also help to
form relationships across boundaries.” These new relationships become conduits for the
continuing practice of generalized reciprocity.
6. Using Collaborative Technologies
Building and using social capital requires time and face-to-face interaction;
generally speaking, technology is not a good substitute (Cohen and Prusak, 2000).
However, we believe that technology has its place. Similarly, Cross and Parker
(2004:121) argue that technology can enhance work processes, but warn that managers
first have to understand how work really gets done—the tasks, the people, the informal
networks—and then explore how technology could assist. They document positive
examples of various communication and collaboration technologies: Instant Messaging
(IM), skill-profiling systems (the equivalent of searchable online resumes), and group-
support systems, such as Web-conferencing, NetMeeting, chat rooms, and team rooms
(e.g., eRooms). For example, British Petroleum’s “Virtual Teamwork Program,” which
enables engineers from around the globe to collaborate in real time and diagnose and
solve technical problems quickly (Pfeffer and Sutton 2000:219). Collaborative
technologies ease the difficulties of making contact with other people when physical
distance or structural impediments are barriers. While these technologies cannot
guarantee high quality connecting, they increase the possibility of interacting by some
means, making trusting, task enabling and/or respectful engagement at least a
If used properly, collaboration technologies increase the motivation to engage in
generalized reciprocity and provide the opportunities to do so. Technology can make
exchange faster and more efficient, and expand the reach of reciprocity well beyond what
is possible in a face-to-face group. We know of only one collaboration technology that
actually creates generalized reciprocity, which is the Virtual Reciprocity Ring™
(www.reciprocityring.com). This tool is explicitly designed to implement the principle
and practice of generalized reciprocity. It is built around a structured process that enables
participants to make requests, to make contributions to requests, and to follow up with
one another. Data show that most exchanges are not between two parties (e.g., A helps
B, B helps A) but third-party exchanges (e.g., A helps B, B helps C, C helps D, and D
helps A). Third-party exchanges are the hallmark of generalized reciprocity. Participants
report that they spend most of their time making contributions to others, and they trust
that their requests will be met along the way. Consistent with observations of reciprocity
in the workplace (Flynn, 2003), using this tool improves productivity, promotes learning,
and builds a climate and culture of trust. Of course, other practices, such as transparent
decision-making, building a shared vision, employee ownership, and job security further
contribute to a climate of trust (e.g., Abrams, Cross, Lesser, and Levin 2003; Leana and
Van Buren 1999).
Our chapter has outlined the contours of a framework for explaining and studying
how organizational units or organizations as a whole are more or less likely to cultivate
positive social capital. By adding the modifier “positive” to the widely used concept of
social capital, we wish to assert that the means and the outcomes of social capital can
vary. A focus on positive social capital highlights the particular value of connections
between people that are generative or resource and capacity-creating. We suggest that
high quality connections and generalized reciprocity are two distinct but complementary
and mutually reinforcing forms of positive social capital. Both forms highlight that
positive relationships are not static entities, but are active mechanisms in the creation and
sustenance of capacities and resources that create value to people who are in connection,
and also to the unit or organization of which they are a part.
There are several research opportunities opened up by this perspective on positive
relationships at work. First, the assumption that HQCs and generalized reciprocity build
capacity for a social entity (like an organizational unit or organization as a whole)
deserves further empirical validation. We have discussed (and summarized in Table 1) a
variety of ways that these forms of positive social capital build and expand capacity, and
implied that these help to account for the range of desirable outcomes also documented in
Table 1. Our ongoing research supports the argument that these HQCs and generalized
reciprocity build capacity and generate resources, but more research is needed.
Testing the first argument—that these forms of positive social capital are
capacity-generating—suggests important theoretical assumptions that must be tested as
well. Implicit in our framework is an assumption that positive relationships at work
(represented by HQCs and reciprocity) are resource-producing. Thus, just by being in one
these forms of connection, people create valuable assets like trust, confidence,
affirmation, energy, and joy, which are durable resources that have impact beyond the
initial connecting point between two or more individuals. In this way, our theory is
consistent with Glynn and Wrobel’s (this volume) claim that positive relationships can be
an engine of resource production that adds to a social unit’s capacity to act, to think, or to
adapt. The idea that resources can be unleashed or unlocked from within a connection
between people is an example of a broader idea of endogenous resourcefulness—i.e., that
there are resources that are released in the process of interacting, in doing, and in
organizing that add value to human and organizational functioning (Dutton, Worline,
Frost and Lilius, 2005; Feldman and Dutton, 2005). This assertion, in turn, builds on
Feldman’s (2004) ideas that resources are built and changed in practice. In our case, we
place at center stage the relational practices that undergird positive social capital, arguing
that these practices are generative i.e., resource-producing.
Third, our perspective invites empirical investigation into how everyday practices
of selecting, socializing, rewarding, meeting, and collaborating create or destroy positive
social capital. At a very concrete level, our analysis suggests that, in the units or
organizations with the enablers in place that we identify as conducive to positive social
capital, we should observe frequent and pervasive high quality connections and
generalized reciprocity. Even within a single organization, we would expect to observe
meaningful variance across units in positive social capital, explained in part by the
presence, extent, and combinations and permutations of enablers that shape both the
motivation and opportunity for these forms of interrelating.
Fourth, we need to examine the extent to which there is congruency among the
practices. It might be unlikely that one enabler could appear without others; perhaps only
a constellation of enablers could be used in practice. For example, it might be unlikely
that an organization would reward for relational skills but fail to hire on the basis of these
skills. Additional research would tell us if it is possible to have situations with high
levels of some enablers, but just moderate (or even low) levels of others.
Our chapter introduces the concept of positive social capital in work
organizations. Positive social capital takes into account both the means by which social
capital is created, and the ends to which it is used. Social capital is positive if the means
by which social capital is created expands the generative capacity of people and groups.
Social capital is positive if helps people grow, thrive, and flourish in organizations and
thereby achieve their goals in better ways.
We focus on two forms of positive social capital—HQCs and reciprocity. These
forms create and sustain positive social capital by expanding the resource-producing
capabilities of positive relationships at work. HQC captures a particular configuration of
positive characteristics of a relationship between two people (mutuality, positive regard
and felt energy). Basic reciprocity refers to mutual exchange, aid, and benefit between
two people; generalized reciprocity refers to a system of mutual exchange, aid, and
benefit among members or a group or organization. HQCs and reciprocity are
complementary forms of social capital where one reinforces the other. We argue that
positive social capital ensues when members of a group or organization are motivated to
engage in high quality connections and generalized reciprocity, and have opportunities to
do so. We identify six types of enablers of positive social capital that operate through the
mechanisms of motivation and opportunities: Selecting on relational skills, participatory
selection practices, relational socialization practices, rewarding for relational skills, using
group incentives, relational meeting practices, and using collaborative technologies.
These enablers can be present or absent in organization, and they exist along a
continuum. Different combinations and permutations of these are possible, though we
expect that certain combinations would appear together in practice
We presented a sample of enablers, so one area of future work is to identify and
validate other enablers of positive social capital. For example, what aspects of an
organization’s or unit’s culture are most conducive to high quality connecting and
generalized reciprocity? Are there particular patterns of shared values and beliefs that
encourage patterns of interrelating that represent positive social capital? For example
could justice, and in particular, interactional justice (e.g., Bies, 2001) be a shared
organizational value or belief that is conducive to the production of positive social
capital (See Greenberg, this volume)? Alternatively, are there particular strategic goals
or ways of competing that are conducive to creating positive social capital? One might
expect that for certain strategies (ones that rely heavily on collaboration and cooperation
within and across organizational boundaries, e.g., alliance strategies (Bamford, Gomes-
Casseres and Robinson, 2003)), enablers of positive social capital would be critical to
sustained economic success. In these organizations, strategic goals and strategic priorities
should be enablers of positive social capital. Finally, our set of enablers of positive social
capital touch on some of the human resource practices that Vogus (2004) has argued
affect respectful interaction at work. His empirical study of nursing units suggest that
bundles of human resource practices (including extensive training, developmental
performance appraisal, selective staffing, performance-based rewards, employee
empowerment and job security) together contribute to patters of respectful interaction
which is conducive to HQCs and to generalized reciprocity. Future research should
consider how these practices alone, and in combination with other practices enable the
creation and sustenance of positive social capital.
More research is needed to understand and validate precisely how these forms of
positive social capital increase the generative capacity of individuals and groups, how
they combine, and how they can be an engine of resource production. Such research
would contribute to a fuller understanding of positive relationships at work—their
dynamics, enablers, underlying mechanisms, and outcomes.
Table 1. Two Forms of Positive Social Capital, Capacities, and Outcomes
Form of positive
social capital What capacities are
expanded? What outcomes?
Connections Emotional carrying capacity
Engagement at work
Attachment and commitment
Individual and project
Reciprocity Ability to exchange more
resources, more quickly
Connectivity of the network
(thus access to more resources)
Ability to combine and
Ability to match resources and
Elevates trust (hence
willingness to make riskier
requests, and to have
confidence of repayment for
Better resource utilization
Discovery of new resources
More problems solved, faster
Reduces duplication of effort
Table 2. Links Between Enablers, Motivation to Engage, and Opportunity Structure for
Two Forms of Positive Social Capital
Motivation Opportunity Structure Enabler To engage in
HQC To engage in
To engage in
HQC To engage in
relational skills More
desire to build
call on these
More likely to
be willing to
--- More occasions
to meet new
to others’ needs
to others’ needs
relational skills Strengthens
trusting and task
enabling to seek new
link and align
make it faster or
interact in ways
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