Craving connection: why workplace teams need it

by Tiffany Paczek
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Improving connection in your team can result in significant workplace gains, as MARIE-CLAIRE ROSS reports.

The importance of feeling some sort of connection to your teammates or organisation isn’t commonly acknowledged in business. Yet, great leaders intuitively realise that what propels their organisation or team forward is a feeling of connection.

Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations at the Chicago Cubs, helped guide the team’s win in the 2016 World Series, its first in 108 years. In an interview with Fortune magazine, Epstein credited the win to the team’s connection: “When people do things they weren’t even sure they were capable of, I think it comes back to connection,” he said. “Connection with teammates. Connection with organisation. Feeling like they belong in the environment. I think it’s a human need – the need to feel connected. We don’t live in isolation. Most people don’t like working in isolation – some do, but typically don’t end up playing Major League Baseball.”

Epstein is right. We do have a need to be with others and we’re biologically wired to want to be with other people. Having a sense of belonging to those around us improves our well-being.

Neuroscience experiments show that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. Those that have high trust levels in the workplace have more meaningful relationships and feel secure in, and loyal to, their group. They also know they have support when they need it.

Yet we often receive conflicting workplace messages that we need to focus on tasks and not waste time making friends. When connection is strained in an organisation, you can easily see it by simply walking around and noting the types of interactions. Without connection, people don’t have open conversations where they can talk through issues and get through bottlenecks. It slows down progress and makes the work of leaders much more frustrating and burdensome.

But connection is more than just having drinks after work on Fridays, gossiping about your teammates or talking about the footy. Here are eight tips for leaders to improve connection in their teams and across the organisation:

1. REGULAR PRODUCTIVE MEETINGS

Meeting face-to-face is an obvious method to build trust. While this is not always possible for virtual teams or those located across different regions, having daily or weekly phone meetings clears up roadblocks, and helps people get clarity and focus on the right priorities.

A 2015 Gallup study of 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries found that workforce engagement improved when supervisors had some form of daily communication with direct reports. Employees want to see that their leader trusts them. As a leader, you can’t be detached or absent.

Often, leaders will tell me they stopped meetings because they waste time and this does happen – particularly when leaders aren’t any good at running them! When there are no regular meetings, however, leaders can be in constant fire-fighting mode, dealing with lots of little issues throughout the day. The irony is that if they had a consistent communication rhythm these issues could be cleared at once, freeing up time.

Leaders who have mastered how to run meetings effectively are more connected and present to the challenges facing the business. This builds an important intuitive feel for the organisation and the people in it. It’s a powerful connection tool.

2. SHARE INFORMATION WIDELY

Communication is all about reducing ambiguity and uncertainty. When employees feel that communication is vague or they don’t understand what is expected of them, they fall into fear and low trust. As a leader, it’s vital that you reduce uncertainty by letting people know where the company is headed and why. Ensure employees are well-informed about the company’s goals, strategies and tactics. Share as much information as you can to help people perform, avoiding irrelevant or confidential information.

Openly sharing your expertise, both at work and even out of work, also builds trust. Encouraging your co-workers to share their knowledge is also important. For example, if an employee went to a conference, ask them to share what they learned at a lunch and learn. This does a lot to build connection and meaning (and make people feel valued in the process).

3. EXPRESSING GRATITUDE AT WORK

The result is that not only do people feel more connected to the organisation, but they also feel more fulfilled and willing to try new things.

Barbara Fredrickson, in the book Positivity, found that high-performance teams gave five positive comments to every one negative (5:1), while average teams had a ratio of three to one (3:1).

Introducing a gratitude ritual into weekly meetings or even handing out gratitude cards to colleagues is a good starting point. For example, Covestro, a supplier of high-tech polymer materials, has introduced gratitude cards into its global offices to improve inclusivity and reward the right behaviours.

4. BE A CONNECTOR

Today, business requires a level of collaboration that’s impossible where leaders are self-interested and compete with others. Knowledge work requires bringing together those with the right skills to solve challenges.

If you’re managing your career, you’re managing a series of relationships. Successful high trust leaders have established solid networks of peers and other professionals that enable them to find the right people in any high stakes project.

In the book Tribal Leadership, Dave Logan says that high-trust leaders create triads. They include three people (or more) in all their meetings. This reduces their time repeating instructions, but it also builds trust, as everyone knows what is going on.

GE realised that 50 percent of its 300,000 employees had been with the company for less than five years. This meant they didn’t quite have the personal networks to succeed and get ahead. GE is now developing a talent management tool to connect employees across the world. While few companies have 300,000 employees to manage, it’s something most organisations still need to address, especially once they have more than 150 employees.

As a leader do what you can to remove common roadblocks for new starters. Help them access information faster and connect them to people.

5. MANAGEMENT BY WALKING AROUND

Savvy business leaders are masters at walking around their organisation or department asking individuals specific questions to find out more about what’s working and what’s not. If people are expecting you to pop over at any moment and ask questions, they will start to be prepared and this gets employees to review and reflect on their work – a powerful tool for constant improvement.

Increasing visibility makes people more likely to trust you.

6. DELEGATE WORK

One of the most important capabilities of a successful leader is being comfortable with delegating work. Not only are such leaders more effective because they get more work done, but also their direct reports feel good because they are being trusted to deliver.

Leaders who avoid delegating tend to falsely believe only they are capable of doing the work. Over time they feel alone, even betrayed by the organisation, because they feel overworked and overwhelmed.

7. ENCOURAGE CROSS-FUNCTIONAL COLLABORATION

Cross-functional teams ensure employees are highly networked. This is probably one of the most important features of a high-trust culture and can be used in several different ways:

  • It is helpful when a team or committee is formed to solve a problem.
  • It encourages people to learn about different departments.
  • It fosters more collaboration between teams, as organisations commonly getting stuck from a lack of understanding of what other teams or departments are doing, resulting in misaligned interests. Instead, get employees to volunteer to hold informal, weekly demos of the projects they’re working on.
  • It encourages employees to meet with others in the company or customers who actually benefit from their work. When employees discover how their work positively impacts others, it becomes highly motivating and strengthens people’s sense of belonging and connection. According to a study from Adam Grant at Wharton School, it even improves productivity by six percent. The best way to create cross-functional collaboration is to make it a ritual and part of the fabric of your company.

8. PARTY TIME!

Of course, teams that get along well together have fun and celebration outside work together. Never underestimate the importance of socialising outside of work hours (or inside). Celebrate reaching milestones, making mistakes, kicking goals and looking after customers. Enjoy being together without working. If the only communication team members have with each other is task related, it reduces the ability for team members to be resilient during conflict.

Give teams time to socialise and talk about things that are non-task related. Sponsor lunches, dinners, activities and after-work parties.

As Abraham Maslow showed in his Hierarchy of Needs, we can’t concern ourselves with higher goals until we have the necessities of life, including safety, connection and meaning. If we don’t feel that, we’re more likely to be focusing our energies on survival rather than creation.

In a business context, trust empowers us to commit to actions, make decisions faster and have the confidence to buy into a big vision and get an innovative project off the ground.

What are you going to do to increase connection with your team and peers? ●

Marie-Claire Ross is the chief corporate catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author and consultant focused on helping leaders create high trust work environments during change and growth. Her highly acclaimed book, Transform Your Safety Communication, reached number three on Amazon. If you want to find out more about building trust, download the free insights paper ‘Building Trust – How High-Trust Companies Deliver Faster Results, Increase Profitability and Loyalty’ at http://bit.ly/buildingtrust2016.

This article also appears in the Feb/Mar issue of Facility Management magazine.

Image: 123RF’s Ivan Kruk © 123RF.com

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