Connect, Inspire, Empower. Rinse. Repeat.

by Alessandra Cavalluzzi

Today I was thinking about how many times I’ve exchanged a “How are you?” with someone in passing and we actually stopped to hear each other’s response.  Sadly, not many times come to mind.  The era of go, go, go has taken its toll on human connection.  Ironic when you think of how connected we are from a technology standpoint.  Social media and apps keep us plugged in, tuned in, and checked-in to everything that is going on around us 24/7.  Yet more and more people are feeling isolated, depressed, and lonely.  This is concerning because human connection and social interaction (in-person interaction) is necessary for mental and physical health. 

Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. who is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and author of "The Happiness Track" (Harper One, 2016) discusses this in a 2012 article for Psychology Today entitled “Connect to Thrive”.  The article states that “decline in social connectedness may explain reported increases in loneliness, isolation, and alienation and may be why studies are finding that loneliness represents one of the leading reasons people seek psychological counseling. Those who are not socially connected are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behavior, and even suicidal behaviors which tend to further increase their isolation.” 

Clearly connecting with others is important in maintaining a happy and balanced life, not to mention a healthy one.  So why are we doing less of it?  People I’ve spoken with about this topic cite crazy schedules and too many other “responsibilities” as the reason why they don’t see their friends or family as often as they once did.  “There’s just not enough time in the day anymore” or “I’m exhausted when I get home from work, the last thing I want to do is go out” seem to be recurring themes in conversations I have with friends, family members, and colleagues.  When it comes to work it’s even worse. We run from meeting to meeting.  More people are eating lunch at their desks than ever before or working through lunch to keep up with projects and workload. This has led to less interaction and increased isolation among employees.  So it's important for leaders to be present and aware of what their teams are feeling.

Social interaction and connection is as important in the workplace as it is in our personal lives, for the same reasons cited in Dr. Seppälä’s article.  The issue is that many leaders believe that being “connected” is the same as having a “connection” with their people.   The reality is that the two couldn’t be more different.  Texting and Skyping may be good ways to stay connected, but they don’t hold a candle to meeting in person.  The increasing popularity of working remotely only adds to the challenge of staying connected.  Now more than ever, it is important for leaders to promote an environment of collaboration and social interaction by taking an active interest in their direct reports.  That means talking about non-work related topics as well as projects and goals.  Travel for leaders with remote teams in other locations must be budgeted for and should be encouraged. 

Great leaders know that they can achieve outstanding results by forging strong relationships with their people.   It may seem like a given, but you’d be surprised just how many managers fail to grasp this seemingly obvious fact.   Strong leaders invest their time in mentoring and teaching.   These individuals understand that a leader is as much a teacher and coach as she is a supervisor.   

The importance of making emotional connections as leaders was also cited in a 2012 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Three Ways Leaders Make Emotional Connections”. The article highlighted engaging people in discussion and giving your employees your undivided attention as key ways of building strong relationships that foster engagement and teamwork.   And while a leader’s ability to connect with his employees is key to their development, growth, and willingness to stay, the ability for a leader to connect employees to each other is just as important.  

Initiating conversations between employees and encouraging cross-department collaboration is another very important skill that leaders must master.  Encouraging and empowering employees to share knowledge with peers in other departments who could benefit from the information breaks down walls, eliminates silos, builds trust, and forges strong relationships.