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.  

We are Human Beings, Not Machines

Fired Up or Burned Out Book CoverWe are human beings, not machines. We have emotions, a conscience, hopes and dreams. We need to be respected, to be recognized for our contributions, to feel a sense of belonging, and we need autonomy, personal growth and meaning in our work. When these needs are met, it is life-giving.  When they are not met, it drains the life out of us.

When people relate to one another in ways that fail to reflect our shared humanity, it results in dysfunction.  Here are links to two recent articles that recognize the importance of emotions and the ability to connect with other human beings.  A New York Times magazine article entitled “The Korean Dads’ 12-Step Program” described a “Father School” where emotionally challenged Korean fathers learned to connect with their wives and children. And here’s a Wall Street Journal article entitled “On the Lesson Plan: Feelings” that describes business school efforts to help MBA students learn to connect relationally with others in the workplace.

Gap’s Chief Innovation Officer Recognizes Connection Required to Innovate


I’m encouraged to see more leaders recognize that individuals and organizations need connection to thrive. Here’s a video of Polly LaBarre at MIX interviewing Ivy Ross, Gap’s Chief Innovation Officer, about the need for connection to innovate. To learn more about “Connection Cultures” download the Connection Culture Manifesto published by changethis.com. You can go even deeper into Connection Cultures by signing up for my new quarterly email newsletter after which you will receive an email that contains a link to a free download of Fired Up or Burned Out, the book that introduced Connection Cultures.

New Research: Relationships Make Hospitals Great

The New York Times recently had an article entitled “What Makes a Hospital Great” that described new research concluding a hospital’s culture and the quality of relationships were the most important factors determining patient outcomes. This finding is consistent with our research that concluded leaders must be intentional about developing both “task excellence” and “relationship excellence” in order to achieve sustainable superior performance.  If leaders focus on task alone the eventual failure of relationships will sabotage excellence.

George Washington, Worthy of Praise?


Today is Presidents’ Day in the U.S., a day in which we primarily celebrate our first president, George Washington. After reading the article “George Washington’s Tear Jerker” in The New York Times, one might ask, was Washington really the great leader he has been made out to be?  I asked myself that question during the summer of 2002 and began a journey to unpack truth from myth.  I went as far as contacting and speaking with Edward Lengel, the foremost historian on Washington’s generalship.  After doing my own research I wrote the following which became one of the chapters on 20 leaders in Fired Up or Burned Out.

First in Their Hearts

Richard Neustadt, Presidential Scholar at Harvard University, observed the following about George Washington: “It wasn’t his generalship that made him stand out . . . It was the way he attended to and stuck by his men. His soldiers knew that he respected and cared for them, and that he would share their severe hardships.”

To Achieve Excellence

Michael Lee Stallard and Jason Pankau

K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues famously concluded that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are required to achieve excellence and expert status.  Malcolm Gladwell popularized Ericsson’s 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers.  What many forget is that Ericsson’s research also concluded the experts benefitted from coaching and mentoring by people who told them the truth, even when it was painful to hear.

The point here is that no one becomes great at anything without coaching and mentoring.  Do you have coaches and mentors in your life who help you learn, grow and develop into the person you want to become?  Do you want to be better at exercising and eating healthy?  Why not ask someone you know who is good in those areas to mentor you.    Do you want to be a better listener?  Ask a good listener you know to give you suggestions about how to improve.  Want to be a better parent and spouse?  Ask your children and spouse how you can improve.

Michael Lee Stallard is president of E Pluribus Partners.  Jason Pankau is the president of Life Spring Network, a Christian ministry.  They write, speak and teach workshops on leadership and employee engagement. Michael and Jason are co-authors of the bestselling book Fired Up or Burned Out.

Leaders Can Learn From College RAs

TCU Logo

Most leaders can learn an important lesson from the RAs at TCU who are creating a sense of community in the residence halls on campus.  You can read about it in this excellent article entitled “Culture of Caring.”  The article makes an important point that creating a sense of community requires intentionality. Daniel Terry, TCU’s director of Community Renewal, puts it this way:

“We’re trying to create whole people here at TCU. [TCU has always had an emphasis on personal attention and mentoring relationships.] We’re implementing Community Renewal at TCU because, like all communities, there needs to be some intentionality around relating to the people around you.  Where there is no intentionality, people tend to take relationships for granted.”

So true.