One of the most fundamental human needs is the need for connection.
We all want to know we are a part of something larger than ourselves; we seek to feel included in the things we care about and connected to the people we like. Everyone feels better to find a supportive friend at the end of a lousy day—at a basic level we crave connection with others.
So often, we tend to downplay what we consider “softer” human needs in our workplaces in an effort to make them more professional, more productive, more business-like. There are clearly good reasons to keep workplaces professional, but we don’t have to strip our humanity out of the picture in order to run a successful business. In fact, encouraging our people to bring their whole selves to work is what makes them work harder, stay longer and deliver more in the long run.
In our workplaces we often overlook this need in the name of professionalism or because we simply fail to recognize its power. A CEO I worked for had a death in his family not long after we started working together. Although he hadn’t been with the company for long and we didn’t know his family yet, the chairman of the board and I flew to his hometown to attend the funeral.
I will never forget the look on his face when he saw us walk into the service that morning, particularly when he saw his boss. He hadn’t known we were coming, and he certainly didn’t expect us to be there. When we had the chance to talk after the funeral, he said to me, “You have forever changed my estimation of what human resources can be and of what kind of company we are." Although he is a very private person, that morning connected us in a way that served us deeply in our working relationship for years to come.
Having had the privilege of working to build highly engaged company cultures for more than 18 years, I have seen the power of connection prove itself over and over. When we allow ourselves to genuinely feel at work, to be our full selves and to reach out to others as human beings rather than colleagues or reports, we create connections that build loyalty, improve productivity and make work a lot more fun.
In virtually all businesses it is the discretionary effort of our people that drives our success. It is when they choose to stay late to finish that big project, or give that extra help to a confused customer, or keep working on a frustrating problem rather than giving up. Those choices our people make are largely driven by how connected they feel at work. If they feel cared for and connected to people at work and to the purpose of their work, they readily give more of themselves and we all benefit.
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But, you say, how do I create connection that doesn’t overstep some HR danger zones and land me in hot water?
Here are five ways to build more connection at work and drive greater results:
1. BE AVAILABLE
As leaders we generally have a hundred meetings to attend and a thousand email messages overflowing our inboxes. How are we supposed to have time to be “touchy-feely”with our staff? It’s as simple as walking through the office every morning and pausing to actually say hello and inquire about the people you see every day.
The five minutes you spend greeting people creates trust and connection. Looking up when someone walks by your door to smile and nod makes them feel you are available to connect with them. It may sound overly simple, but it can be surprising how many executives skip this basic courtesy and how much alienation it creates with their teams.
2. BE CURIOUS
Go deeper. Asking people about their lives, their families and their interests with genuine curiosity shows them that you see them as a person, not just a project manager or receptionist. We can be so overwhelmed by the pace of our work lives or so fearful of treading into “personal” territory that we forget to actually ask about things outside of work, or we only ask a perfunctory question and don’t really care about the answer or dig any deeper.
One strategy I have used with CEOs is to give them a cheat sheet of who had a baby and who got married or whose father is sick before they visit a particular location, so they can reach out to those people while they’re in town and ask about it. And it’s also okay to...
3. INQUIRE WHEN THINGS GO BAD
Although most of us worry that we’re intruding or overstepping our bounds, when you can see that someone is struggling or sad, it’s okay to ask what’s going on. A gentle “Hey, is everything ok, you look like maybe something’s going on?” shows them you noticed, you care, and you’re willing to listen. If they don’t want to tell you, let it be and simply let them know you want to help if you can.
It may feel overly personal, but this is where you can build profound connections and powerful loyalty. I am continually amazed by the small ways companies can help out that would never have surfaced without asking. This kind of inquiring has led my company to buy a plane ticket for an employee’s in-laws to see their son before he died, and another for an employee’s mom to live with her while she successfully went through chemotherapy—both tickets the families couldn’t afford. Neither of those employees would ever have asked for the money or even considered that it was possible to get it from their employer, but providing it showed them that we cared deeply about them as human beings and forever changed their relationship with their company.
4. BE VULNERABLE TO YOURSELF
There is an inherent power imbalance in a manager/direct report relationship that will always be there, so you may have to go more than halfway to create a safe space for connection. Talking about yourself outside of work—and in particular your screw-ups, fears or difficult moments—will let your staff see you as a person too.
The number one reason people leave jobs is their relationship with their manager. Modeling your own humanity at work allows them to do the same. And perhaps most powerfully…
5. NEVER FORGET "THE WHY"
Simon Sinek’s TED talk and his book, Start With Why, cover this beautifully. We need to be connected to the purpose of what we do. We often spend so much time as leaders talking about what we need our people to do, but we overlook why they should be doing it. That discretionary effort kicks in harder and faster when people have a clear connection to purpose.
Don’t forget to make sure they know what yours is.