Social capital and the spirit of Christmas

Social capital and the spirit of Christmas (December 20, 2001)

The View From Taft, BusinessWorld

There are many things I like about our country. The weather is temperate. The cuisine is tasty. And the people are friendly and know how to have fun. Christmas in particular brings all the best things out of Filipinos. This is when we have the most fun. And this is when we are nicest to each other in general and, in particular, especially nice to people we care about. Christmas is, therefore, a great time to build and strengthen ties with people.

Now, why am I making a big thing about being nice to each other, having fun and building ties? Because I think that these are practices that we Filipinos are so good at and yet have not made full use of, whether in corporations or as a nation. Organizational researchers have a special term for high-trust networks of relationships which allow people to work together towards a common goal – social capital.

I’ve often wondered why, despite the vaunted talent of the Filipino, we are conspicuously trailing many of our neighbors in achieving development goals. At the micro level, this kind of underachievement is true even in many otherwise excellent organizations. My theory is that we have run very low in social capital. We have slowly squandered our reservoirs of trust, goodwill and sense of collective fun until we have become in many organizations, and as a nation, socially bankrupt.

Watching the evening news is a daily habit for me and it’s a habit I may have to stop if only to keep from getting depressed. Not a day goes by without a politician leveling the most horrible accusation at another on national television. More recently, a lady from a cause-oriented group deplored how excluded her group felt about the recently held economic summit. A government leader, one of the organizers, explained that they did take the group’s concerns into account during the summit.

And as I watched the exchange on television, I had that strange combination of feelings I often get nowadays: lucky, on the one hand, to have such committed and talented individuals taking the cudgels for our country and sad, on the other hand, that these individuals will never get their act together. Then it hit me. We can’t get our act together because we don’t trust each other. We don’t even like each other. It’s no wonder this country isn’t going anywhere!

How did we get this way? How did a country known for its patient and hospitable people ever get to a point that we have made putting each other down a national pastime and a gladiator sport? How did a country that has produced – and continues to produce – some of the most talented individuals become the collective cellar dweller in the drive towards genuine national development?

It’s the little things, I think. It’s the insistence on being right and the other being wrong. It’s the refusal to really listen and let the other person finish a sentence before we say our piece. It’s the little judgments we make about another person not being one of “us” and, therefore, not being trustworthy. It’s the focus on “me” instead of the “us.” In other words, it’s the fatal mistake of forgetting that in the journey of life, we are all in it together.

But this is history, and Christmas signals the coming of a new year and a new beginning. If we have run out of social capital, we can certainly build it up again. First, we need a collective goal and we certainly have one – the uplift of the dignity and standard of living of the majority of our countrymen. We need to accept that our fates are intertwined; that we cannot truly succeed while others plod along in life. Second, we have to put our talents for niceness and caring to very good use – on each other – and not just during Christmas but all year round.

This will begin the building of collective trust. But it will take time because it will need the establishment of an ethical climate where we, whether as citizens or as members of organizations, act beyond self-interest. And this is only possible if relationships are allowed to build over time. There are some specific steps that we should consider seriously. In companies, this means selecting people more carefully and trying to keep them longer. If as a manager you are considering moves that will result in too many losses of jobs, rethink it. If it looks good on the balance sheet and gives a twinkle in your investment banker’s eye, rethink it even more. You may be profiting by displacing people who have toiled hard on the very strategies you asked them to pursue, only to toss them out when these strategies fail. Is there a more humane way of recovering from the mistake? A fairer way? Can you share in the consequences and the pain? Avoiding the short-cut solution will earn you tremendous trust points (not to mention pogi points) with your people and build company social capital. The next time mergers are considered, managers should look at how much social capital will be lost as people are let go and as relationships are destroyed.

As countrymen, we can start by giving each other more benefit of the doubt, especially on contentious issues. The horrific attacks on the World Trade Center had one good effect – they triggered a global interest in understanding why many Muslims feel so left out. While the President’s declaration of the last day of Ramadan as a national holiday wreaked havoc on my personal schedule, I applaud her intention and hope for more efforts to reach out to our brethren in the South.

Three of my siblings, who long ago migrated to the US, often ask me why I stay. I always say that I love being here. I like the weather, I like the food, and I still like the people. This Christmas, let’s all reflect on how we can begin a new year of rediscovering what makes us special as a people. Who knows – I may even convince my siblings to come back. I’m an optimist.

Merry Christmas, everyone!