How lunch can build social capital in your project team

Michelle LaBrosse
May 21, 2015

In their study of different project management practices across the globe, Frank Anbari and his collaborators noted in Managing Cross Cultural Differences in Projects (2009) that project managers in the US, UK, and Australia ranked as the most ‘individualistic’ in their attitudes towards work, as opposed to others with more ‘collectivist’ attitudes.

Project managers in these countries tend to define ‘success’ in terms of their own success in their professions and are more likely to disregard the success (or failure) of other members on their project team. Unlike those with a more collectivist attitude, the individualists may not feel great loyalty to their team or other co-workers.

Individualist tendencies have their advantages. For example, this approach is likely to be more time-efficient than a strongly collectivist one, which tends to strive for group consensus on every decision. Taken to the extreme, though, an individualist approach to project management has drawbacks.

Interpersonal relationships—between co-workers, supervisors, and stakeholders—play a role in every project; the only difference is that some project management practices take them into account productively, while others try to ignore their existence. In this article, we’ll review some of the ways to incorporate a consideration of social capital into your everyday project management practices in order to build a more successful project team.

You may have heard of the idea of social capital before. This is your network of connections that helps shape the kind and number of different opportunities you have in your life. The idea of social capital is fairly new; it has only come into popular use since the publication of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone (2000). In this book, Putnam tracks Americans’ involvement in different social groups and finds a consistent decline in in-person interactions—’social capital’—since the 1950s.

We can see this trend in our own workplace environments. Many of us spend the whole day in front of our computers, and will interact with co-workers only over email or via message, even if we’re working on the same project team. To really build social capital, though, you need to get out of your cubicle and talk to people face-to-face.

Here are some steps you can take to build your social capital at work that will not just increase your own network and field of opportunities, but will improve the performance of your project team:

1. The power of lunch

Instead of eating lunch alone at your workstation, where you run the risk of spilling soup all over your keyboard as you attempt to ‘multitask’, go out to lunch with your coworkers, supervisors, or stakeholders. Take this opportunity to develop rapport with these people and get a better sense of their communication styles.

The kinds of conversations you’ll have at lunch will likely show you a new side of the people you work with, which you might not get to see if you only communicate with them over email or conference call.

2. Foster a culture of reciprocity

A great way to get more buy-in from the other people on your project team, or co-workers whose help you might need, is to show them what’s in it for them. Rather than just saying, “I need you to do X,” begin your interaction by briefly explaining your project and why this person could benefit from helping you. You’ll also need to find a balance of offering help to others and asking for it in order to develop lasting and positive working relationships with others.

3. Be proactive

Don’t just interact with the co-workers and supervisors that your job requires you to interact with—get out there and meet other people in your industry! If you’re a project manager, joining a professional network is a great way to expand your network of connections and develop your professional skills.

These are just a few ideas to help you grow your social capital at work, even if you’re not currently in need of networking opportunities to look for a new job. The benefits of social capital go beyond just helping you land a position; social capital is also a key part of developing a successful project teams built on mutually beneficial working relationships among co-workers. A few simple actions like taking your team out to lunch can have a huge impact on your team’s ability to work together effectively.

Author avatar
Michelle LaBrosse
Michelle LaBrosse (PMP) is one of the Project Management Institute's (PMI) 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the World and the founder of Cheetah Learning, a former PMI Professional Development Provider of the Year. She boasts a background in engineering and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Managers (OPM) program, as well as a prolific writer and educator, having authored Cheetah Negotiations, Cheetah Project Management, Cheetah Know How and Cheetah Exam Prep as well as numerous articles in publications worldwide.
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