Is your energy level lower than you’d like? Do you feel you’re not performing at the top of your game? Are you so busy that it has crowded out time to truly connect with trusted confidants? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” you may be suffering from the effects of the “silent killer” of individuals, and it may also be holding back your performance and the performance of your organization.
Recent research by Cigna, the insurance company, found that more than half of Americans are lonely. Earlier this year, Cigna surveyed 20,000 American adults using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a scientifically validated survey that is commonly used to assess loneliness. Cigna’s research found the average response was above what is considered lonely, which is consistent with other research that supports the news that America is facing an epidemic of loneliness.
Death by a Thousand Cuts
The loneliness epidemic is significant because it acts as a silent killer in many ways. Loneliness makes us more vulnerable to chronic stress, which deprives parts of our brain, digestive system and immune system of the blood, glucose and oxygen needed to perform well and live a longer life span. Research has found that loneliness (feeling lonely, although one is around people) and social isolation (not being around people) are both associated with early death that is on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness makes people less sociable, less cooperative and less collaborative, which further isolates them and makes them vulnerable to stress-induced anxiety, depression and suicide.
Organizations populated with lonely people experience lower employee engagement, poorer quality of decisions, and a reduced rate of innovation. Lonely people who work on the front lines directly with customers are not good for customer satisfaction and loyalty. These effects of loneliness sabotage performance and can shave years off of the lives of both individuals and organizations.
To Reduce Loneliness and Isolation, Boost Connection
To protect yourself and your organization, be intentional about developing and maintaining a “Connection Culture.” In my book, Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work, I make the case for connection and describe how leaders including Alan Mulally, the CEO who saved the Ford Motor Company from bankruptcy; Bono of the rock band U2; Frances Hesselbein, former head of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.; Ratan Tata, former head of the Tata Group; and Victor Boschini, Chancellor of Texas Christian University (TCU) led in ways that boosted human connection in their organization’s culture. In an earlier SmartBrief article, I wrote about Costco’s Connection Culture and how it helped the organization surpass Google to be recognized as America’s best large company employer (according to research by Forbes and Statista).
Human connection is boosted in cultures in which leaders communicate an inspiring vision, value people and give them a voice. An easy way to think of these elements is through this formula: Vision + Value + Voice = Connection.
- Communicate an inspiring vision. If you are a leader or manager in your organization, communicate an inspiring vision by reminding people of how the work they do is helping others. Chuck Schwab inspired people who worked at the company he founded, Charles Schwab, by establishing a mission to provide the most useful and ethical financial services in the world. Costco inspires its people with the motto “do the right thing,” which is defined as obey the law, take care of members, take care of employees, respect suppliers and reward shareholders, in that order. Costco has a reputation for doing the right thing and its employees rightly feel proud, knowing that they are part of an ethical organization.
- Value people. Show you value people as individuals by taking time to get to know their names, career aspirations and interests outside of work. Even simple gestures such as making eye contact and saying “hi” when you see them communicate your interest in them. Providing training or coaching to help them advance in their careers further shows that you care about them as individuals and want them to be able to succeed even beyond their current role with you.
- Give people a voice. Sincerely seek the ideas and opinions of the people you lead, especially on matters that are of interest to them and on actions you are counting on them to implement. Be sure to follow up by recognizing them for their contributions.
Being intentional about connection with the people you lead will boost connection and performance, individually and across the team, as well as protect you and your organization from the loneliness epidemic.
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