How to Invest in Your Social Capital

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How to Invest in Your Social Capital

Influencing others’ network ties shapes your status.
Two men chat on a footbridge. Credit: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili
Do you help build up others’ relationships? It might improve your value. | Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

Have you ever set a friend up on a date or recommended someone for a job? Perhaps resolved a conflict among friends (or stirred up trouble instead)?

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you often influence other people’s personal and professional relationships. Whenever you gossip, make in-person or online introductions, or give colleagues relationship advice — you act as a social broker. How does your brokering behavior influence how others see you?

Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Nir Halevy, with colleagues Eliran Halali from Bar-Ilan University and Julian J. Zlatev from Harvard University, developed a new model to understand different kinds of social brokering and create a common language for describing how we shape others’ social and professional networks. He also found that the manner in which we impact others’ network connections, for better or worse, shapes our “social capital” — the extent to which others trust us and hold us in high regard.

Three Types of Social “Brokering”

In his paper, “Brokerage and Brokering,” Halevy explains that brokering behaviors can be understood based on how they change others’ network ties. Brokers can create new relationships or terminate existing relationships. They can also change relationships from negative to positive or vice versa. To know how you impact other people’s social and professional networks, you need to compare their network ties before versus after you intervened in their social or professional lives.

Consider three kinds of social brokers: intermediaries, conciliators, and dividers.

Intermediaries, Halevy says, are “cooperation catalysts” — they bridge gaps in the social structure, helping those around them build positive connections with others. Intermediaries create new relationships through introductions, recommendations, or actions that connect other people positively.

Conciliators, says Halevy, help others mend broken relationships. These are the helpful colleagues who try to mediate when others disagree or fight. They seek compromises and integrative solutions to conflicts, aiming to restore trust and collaboration when possible. Whereas intermediaries create new relationships, conciliators transform competition into cooperation.

Finally, dividers are harmful brokers. They are the Machiavellian strategists who seek to create friction and conflict. Dividers may use malicious gossip or other means to supplant unity and accord with friction and struggle. Whereas intermediaries create relationships and conciliators fix relationships, dividers undermine and terminate relationships.

Assessing Types of Brokers

Having developed a common language for describing different brokering orientations, Halevy next wanted to explore how individuals’ propensities to act as intermediaries, conciliators, and dividers shape their social capital.

To do so, he and colleagues Eliran Halali from Bar-Ilan University and Taya Cohen from Carnegie Mellon University conducted a series of six studies that developed and validated a new measure to assess how much we act as intermediaries, conciliators, and dividers.

The dominant bosses, the office gossip, and the divisive colleague might be seen as strong characters capable of influence. However, our research shows they’re also seen as untrustworthy, less prestigious, and as occupying lower status. Their efforts to harm others’ network ties backfire and undermine their own social capital
Nir Halevy

The researchers found that some people tend to engage in all three kinds of brokering behaviors more than others. “People who report that they frequently act as intermediaries, by introducing and connecting people, also report that they tend to act as conciliators quite often,” Halevy says. He and his coauthors interpreted these findings to mean that individuals who seek to engage in social influence — those who seek social power — tend to engage in different kinds of brokering behaviors more than those who shy away from social influence.

The research also revealed that individuals’ personality traits and values related to how they tended to manage others’ networks.

Extroverts, the research shows, tend to act as intermediaries often. Individuals who value their moral identity tend to act as conciliators, whereas those who score high on Machiavellianism tend to act as dividers more often.

The Social Impact of Brokering

Halevy and his colleagues found that people’s tendencies to act as intermediaries, conciliators, and dividers predict how much others trust them, confer status to them, or see them as dominant and power seeking.

Whereas intermediaries are often rewarded with status, their efforts to connect others typically do not lead to greater trust in them. Conciliators gain trust and prestige from their peers. Interestingly, although conciliators actively engage in social influence, other people tend to see them as less dominant. Finally, dividers are viewed as untrustworthy yet highly dominant.

“We find that intermediaries and conciliators receive a positive return on their investment. Their helpfulness is socially rewarded,” Halevy says. “Cooperation catalysts, who are essential within organizations of any kind, receive positive reinforcements for their social influence.”

For dividers, the news is less favorable.

“The dominant bosses, the office gossip, and the divisive colleague might be seen as strong characters capable of influence,” Halevy notes, “however, our research shows they’re also seen as untrustworthy, less prestigious, and as occupying lower status. Their efforts to harm others’ network ties backfire and undermine their own social capital.”

The Best Broker Path

“I find it really fascinating,” Halevy says. “Previous research has shown that people often dislike networking, that is, they dislike building ties instrumentally. Acting as intermediaries solves that problem. If you think about it, intermediaries are simultaneously helpful and instrumental. When you make an introduction or recommend someone for a job or a promotion, you’re being helpful to two other people, but you’re also sending out strong cues about your own connections, influence, and helpfulness.”

“The take-home message is that helpful social brokering is a win-win-win situation,” Halevy says. “The broker benefits from being seen as helpful and influential, and the parties brought together by the broker benefit from new collaborative ties.”

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