"When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."
Connection, Belonging, Influence
Lately, I've been thinking about the significance of connection, belonging, and influence. We all connect with others in a variety of ways in our personal and professional lives. Some of our connections are sources of great joy, while others can be sources of pain and frustration. Some of our connections are tenuously held, while others are tight and deep. We can embrace connections, seeking greater opportunities to meet and know new people, or we can choose avoidance, convincing ourselves that we know enough people and don't "need" any more friends. At times, we struggle to maintain the relationships that already exist in our lives. The circle of connection varies greatly in individuals, but the sense of belonging and acceptance that comes from connection has great significance for all because it is a fundamental human need.
According to Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection, connection is "the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.'
Whether we like it or not, our first connection is family. The genetic link is difficult to ignore. In one way or another, we inherit physical and personality traits of family members. Many of us wish that we didn't! We are inextricably connected to our parents and siblings, and the ties are often so strong that their influence lives on in us after they are gone.
My father died a couple of months ago. As we gathered to say goodbye, I was struck by the connections of his life. He and I had a strong but often uneasy relationship. Our connection was powerful; not only was the physical resemblance unmistakable, but we shared the same stubborn streak and independent spirit. From an early age, I wanted the freedom to make my own decisions and earn my own way, and he wanted to provide and protect. My dad was "old school" with high expectations while accepting no excuses. He was a man of unshakable character and integrity, with impeccable manners, and he demanded the same from his children. I thought that all men were like him until I was disappointed to learn otherwise. We led very different lives, and yet, he left me with the gifts of connection, expectation, and unconditional love that made me determined that I would never disappoint him. He was a true leader, and created similar connections and loyalties among his employees across a span of more than fifty years.
Connection in the Workplace
And what of our connections at work with subordinates and fellow employees? We may have natural tendencies toward acceptance, trust, and cooperation, but we also learn how to navigate relationships and connections based on our negative experiences. We can become fearful, self-protective and cynical depending on the types of leadership we experience in the workplace. Of course, our personalities also dictate how we interact with others, and how we allow or don't allow interpersonal connections to grow.
Connection in the workplace is about building rapport and relationships. It is one of the most important components of good leadership. In fact, the higher the level of leadership, the more important it is to have the ability and willingness to connect with others. Connection, done well and with authenticity, equals influence. A leader who is unable to interact with others in a positive and meaningful way will struggle with lack of trust and respect from his or her employees. At the highest levels of leadership, the technical skills required of a position become secondary to the need to be able to build strong rapport across all levels of an organization. From the perspective of leadership, the power of connection is incredible. In organizations that value connection and encourage a sense of belonging, the culture reflects cooperation, commitment, respect, and results.
Connection with others is a common desire. We all want and need to have a sense of belonging. Our connections may be physical, spiritual, emotional, or professional. We may also be connected by bigotry, hatred, and anger. Did I mention that connection is a powerful thing? We all want friends, because we all want to be accepted by others as unique individuals. We want to be recognized and respected. We want to matter. Of course, connection with others also brings vulnerability and perhaps anxiety. What if the person you want to connect with isn't interested in connecting with you? Or, you may become friends, but what happens when the friendship is felt more deeply by one person than the other? Connections are never perfect. We all manage to damage relationships at some point, hurting or offending someone we care about. We may be testing the connection, or sometimes it's simply a misunderstanding. Then the question becomes, is the connection strong enough to survive, and is it worth repairing? Will my friend/colleague/partner forgive me?
Connection and Leadership
The greatest connections that a leader can provide and encourage in an organizational setting are the gifts of making sure people are being heard, seen, and valued. These connections are no different from what we all want in our personal relationships, but they are not as much of a priority in the workplace as you might think. Arrogance, intimidation, and self-absorption can supersede caring and understanding when egos get in the way and power and money are involved. I've learned that the best way to be powerful is to encourage connection and cultivate relationships. Some leaders, especially those of us who are strong introverts, have to work at it every day and be conscious of demeanor, body language, and positive energy. A smile and a friendly greeting can go a long way. A leader who is unable or unwilling to interact with others in a way that encourages cooperation, commitment, and respect will not gain those things in return, and will significantly reduce his or her influence.
The value of connection is that it not only shows a leader's humanity and humility, but it also reinforces the idea that everyone in the workplace, regardless of title, is working toward the same goal. A leader who can connect with others has the ability to share vision, make employees feel wanted and needed, and can help and inspire them. Authentic connection is an invaluable leadership skill that leads to high performance and personal satisfaction. People who are seen, heard, and valued know that they can trust their leader. A leader who encourages honest and open communication without fear of repercussion will be rewarded by a work environment in which others are committed to connecting with their subordinates in order to gain the same results, therefore multiplying positive influence.
The power of connection in the workplace is strong because the need for connection and belonging is fundamental to us as human beings. Leaders who learn the value of paying attention to individuals, knowing their names, including them in conversations and decisions, and asking what they think will create powerful connections with others. Leaders must also bring a positive influence into the workplace and remember that their emotional state is contagious. A leader's bad day should never cause his or her direct reports to have a bad day.
Even those of us who are introverted leaders can develop the skills to connect with employees by being aware of their needs and concerns and putting those before our own need for space or quiet. This is still a work in progress for me, but I've made it a priority because the value in my work at the senior level has become much more about interpersonal skills, communication, and authenticity, and much less about technical or institutional knowledge. It's a great reminder of how much I still have to learn, but I've got connections to help me.
Thank you for reading. How well are you connecting at work?
Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/deborah-sparrow/.