Connection Precedes Collaboration

“People buy into the leader, before they buy into the vision” – John C. Maxwell

Recently as I was digging through a stack of business information, I was struck by the amount of business lingo we use to describe the leadership and business challenges we face. I was swimming through a sea of EVPs, EAPs, HCMs, KPIs and virtually any other acronym you can think of.

It made me wonder if in our focus on the work, that we’ve lost sight of the forest for the trees. We’ve lost sight of one simple fact – what drives the beating heart of every organisation are the people. We also forget that as humans, we come fully loaded with emotional baggage and needs. We bring all this to work every day, and subconsciously it affects our performance, and how we interact with our teams and colleagues.

One of our most fundamental needs is our desire for connection. We’re hardwired to connect. Socially, we seek out other likeminded people to fulfil our innate desire to be part of a ‘tribe’ that accepts us and has our back when we need help and support. Social connectedness helps improve overall emotional and physical wellbeing, and studies have shown that people who are more connected to others have lower anxiety and depression. In fact, the pain of social rejection is real. A brain imaging study by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan suggests that the parts of the brain that are activated during social rejection are the same as when we experience physical pain.

We bring our desire for connection with us to work as well. Throughout my corporate career, the leaders who have most inspired and influenced my leadership journey were the ones who weren’t afraid to share a little bit about themselves – what they stood for, who they were outside work – and who showed a genuine interest in me as a person, not just their employee.

When you can relate to your colleagues and connect with the company mission, an invisible thread forms creating a feeling of ‘we’re in this together’ infusing us with a sense of belonging and a greater sense of purpose. As such, you’re more likely to go above and beyond. Conversely, if you feel no sense of connection to your manager and to your company’s purpose, then chances are you’ve mentally checked out and are doing more clockwatching instead of value adding.

Connection also builds trust. Leaders who cannot build trust lose their power to influence. Anyone who’s ever tried to secure buy in from others know first hand that relationships grounded in trust are an essential prerequisite to smooth the way to greater influence and commitment. Connection precedes collaboration.

Clearly, forging stronger connections at work is good for us, and for the business.

So, as leaders, what are we doing to connect better with our people? How can we help them connect their contribution to the wider company goals?

Are we doing enough with our leadership development programs to develop the people management and interpersonal skills that are so crucial for getting the best from our teams?

What are you doing personally to build a stronger sense of connection so that work becomes more energising and meaningful?

Let’s first clarify what ‘connecting’ is really about.

Connecting is about:

  • Relating to and making the connection one-on-one.
  • Showing respect for the individual. This means eye contact and putting down whatever you’re doing to pay attention to what they’re saying. As in really listen, not pretending to listen.
  • Having a genuine interest in the other person. Hearing their stories to get to know who they are and understanding what’s important to them in and outside of work.
  • Having empathy when managing multiple conflicting points of view and when you have to make important people decisions.
  • Building mutual trust and respect to pave the way for collaboration.

Connecting is not about:

  • Making friends and being ‘besties’ with everyone.
  • Avoiding tough conversations when needed to address performance issues.
  • Finding ways to manipulate the other person into doing what you want.

To develop leaders who can handle the complexities of globalisation and diversity, organisations need to help their leaders build their interpersonal and people management skills. Research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership shows that about one third of senior executives derail or plateau at some point, often due to their inability to build cohesive, high performing teams or regulate their own emotions when stressed. Without an increased focus on these skills, organisations risk building a strong talent pipeline for the future.

But there is more that each of us can do as well, as leaders of our organisation and as employees ourselves, to build stronger connections at work.

As a leader, you can:

  • Have the courage to show up authentically. Let your team get to know you as a person, not just as a boss.
  • Get out from behind your computer and interact with your direct reports. Consider a walkabout during the day and stop to speak to 1-2 people.
  • Show genuine interest in your people. Understand what they value and be concerned about their overall wellbeing.
  • Help your direct reports see how their work connects to the larger company purpose.
  • Facilitate building connections among your team members to form more cohesive teams, and help them build stronger relationships with other groups and stakeholders.

As an employee, remember that your manager is human too. As such, they also have an innate desire to connect with others, though sometimes their behavior may not indicate that on the surface. For some managers, the fear of looking like they don’t know what they’re doing gets in the way of forming real connections with their people.

A great way to begin relating to your boss is by understanding what keeps them up at night, and supporting them to succeed. Not every manager is comfortable getting up close and personal. Pay attention to how they prefer to communicate and work, and adjust your style to suit theirs. Remember connecting is not about making friends necessarily. It’s about being able to relate to each other to find common ground for collaboration.

If all this sounds like it takes time and effort, you’re right. It does require an investment of your time and effort on your part. But if you care about results, then you should care about building stronger connections.

Carol Yang loves working with leaders to bring out the best in themselves to achieve success on their own terms. As the Founder of Spring Forward, she helps leaders improve their leadership influence and confidence as they navigate the complexities of globalisation and diversity, and works with organisations to improve performance and develop a strong talent pipeline for the future.


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