Rise of Lonely American Employees Undermines Productivity

Several facts recently caught my attention.

  • In 1940, 7.7 percent of Americans lived in one-person households. By 2000, that number more than tripled to 25.8 percent.  (In Manhattan, 48 percent of all households were one-person households in 2000.)
  • Between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with whom the average American discussed “important matters” dropped from three to two. During that same time period the percentage of people who had no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled to nearly 25 percent.
  • A study by Norman Nie and his Stanford colleagues found that as people spend more time on the internet, they spent less face-to-face time with other human beings. (Who’s not spending more time on the internet these days?)

These facts all point to the conclusion that loneliness is on the rise in America. As we pointed out in our book Fired Up or Burned Out and in The Connection Culture: A New Source of Competitive Advantage, people need human connection to thrive.  We are human beings, not machines.  When we don’t experience sufficient human connection, we dysfunction. This may include experiencing feelings of emptiness, boredom and depression.  It may lead some to engage in substance abuse to numb the pain.  Others may pursue illegitimate thrills to feel alive again and in doing so develop addictions to pornography, sexual encounters with prostitutes and one night stands, or taking excessive business risks.  These paths never end well for the individual, their families and friends, or for their organizations.  To combat the pervasive loneliness that’s damaging American society and organizations, leaders need to create Connection Cultures that unite people and develop “relationship excellence” that supplements efforts to develop “task excellence” in organizations.

There are three general types of cultures in organizations when it comes to relationships and connection.  The worst is the “toxic culture” were people with power, control and influence dominate others.  This is a dog-eat-dog culture.  The second type of culture is a “culture of indifference.”  In these cultures people are so focused on tasks they fail to take time to connect.  Because the culture of indifference doesn’t meet universal human needs for respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning, it gradually drains the life out of people.

If the worst culture is a dog-eat-dog culture, then the best culture is similar to a sled dog team that pulls together.  This describes a “Connection Culture” where people feel connected to their organization’s identity (mission, values, reputation), to the people they work alongside (especially their supervisor), their work tasks (because they experience “flow”), and to the organization’s decisions (because they are kept in the loop on matters that are important to them and their opinions and ideas are considered when and where possible).

Which of the three cultures do you work in?  If you’re not working in a connection culture, what are you going to do about it?  You can make a difference if you (1) educate yourself to advocate for developing a Connection Culture,  (2) walk the talk and (3) develop the courage of your convictions to influence others.

Let me encourage you to begin by reading two free resources.  The first is the changethis.com manifesto entitled The Connection Culture: A New Source of Competitive Advantage. The second free resource is the Leader to Leader Journal article entitled “To Boost Productivity, Connect with the Core” (it has great stories about Admiral Vern Clark, chief of the U.S. Navy, and Bono of the rock band U2).  After you’ve read the articles, I encourage you to sign up for our email newsletter after which you will receive a free digital version of the book that introduced Connection Cultures entitled Fired Up or Burned Out.

More leaders are discovering the power of Connection Cultures.  Last week I taught a workshop in New York City for the Institute for Management Studies where employees from organizations including New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Medco and the Veterans Administration were present. Next week I’ll be teaching about Connection Cultures in a series of Webex presentations for Executive Development Partners and its client the McKesson Corporation.  M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, one of the leading cancer centers in the world, just hired us to speak about Connection Cultures later this summer after a group of doctors read Fired Up or Burned Out and “loved it.” We also just announced that on July 29, I’ll be speaking with CNO Admiral Vern Clark at breakfast and lunch meetings sponsored by Harvard and Wharton Business School Clubs of DC.

(Note: the facts cited at the beginning of this post were sourced from The Lonely American.)

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