Here is an article I wrote that I’m considering submitting for publication. It’s about the decline of human connection in life these days, how it affects happiness and employee engagement, and what organizations are doing about it.
Correcting the Connection Deficit
Michael Lee Stallard
The word “connect” is ubiquitous in our everyday language. Frequently, we will hear people say they “connected” or they “just didn’t connect” with someone. Connection is the bond of affinity, trust and commitment that forms between individuals as a result of their interactions. A growing body of research suggests that increasing human “connection” in the workplace is key to improving employee engagement and winning the war for talent.
We have long known that connection, or the lack of it, affects human beings. In ancient times, Plato recognized “thymos,” the desire for recognition, as one of the primary forces motivating humans. In the 1950s, psychologist Abraham Maslow identified self-esteem and belonging as deficit needs that when unmet trigger emotions that drive humans to seek their fulfillment. Seven separate studies that followed thousands of individuals over several years established that feeling liked, affirmed and encouraged by friends and family predicted better health and a longer lifespan. Research has also established that positive feelings associated with connection make individuals more creative and more resilient, while feeling disconnected is more likely to result in irrational and self-defeating acts.
In addition to research in the social sciences, neurobiologists have discovered that connection has a physiological effect on the brain. Connection increases oxytocin, the hormone that is associated with trust. When people feel alone in a group setting (a state of disconnection), the body increases cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone. If cortisol remains elevated for a sustained period of time it damages the human body. Cortisol also increases feelings of anxiety and makes it difficult to concentrate, and it impairs memory. Using Functional MRI technology, scientists have discovered that the part of the brain that becomes active when we feel physical pain registers a similar reaction when we feel excluded by others. This phenomenon has been described as “social pain.”
Another study conducted that points to the importance of connection is Royal Dutch Shell’s 1983 analysis of 27 organizations that survived more than a century. The study identified that members in these organizations felt a “sense of belonging” and thought of other members as part of their community. In other words, members of these organizations felt connection.
Many political scientists now believe that connection, which they refer to as “social capital,” is one of the factors that affect the economic growth of nations. And that makes sense given that teams, business units, and organizations in a society are more likely to be productive when their members feel a sense of connection among the team and are therefore more trusting and cooperative with one another.
The Connection Deficit
Several factors have contributed to a growing connection deficit, especially in America. Historically, our need for connection has been largely met through time spent with family and friends in the community. With the geographic separation of extended families that has occurred over the last century, individuals experience less connection with relatives. Coupled with the well-documented increase in hours spent working and the rise of families with two wage-earners, individuals have less time available for connection outside of work. Finally, the ongoing push for productivity gains has made it more difficult to find time to connect with others at work and has made it less acceptable to be seen spending time connecting with others. As a result of these factors, the connection deficit has soared. Several well-respected psychologists and sociologists now believe that the expanding connection deficit in America following World War II is the primary reason happiness has been stagnant and depression has increased even during a period of robust economic growth.
Unfortunately, few individuals in organizations today have their human needs for connection met. Research by The Gallup Organization consistently shows that 70 percent of employees are typically disengaged (i.e. feeling disconnected) at work. The Gallup Organization’s popular Q12 employee engagement survey asks respondents if they recently received recognition or praise at work, if their supervisor or someone at work cares about them, if their opinions are considered, if someone encourages their development, if someone has spoken with them about their progress, and if their colleagues share a sense of pride and commitment to excellence in their work. Each of these questions addresses different aspects that affect connection in the workplace.
With the dismal state of connection in today’s workplace, we would expect that it would have a negative effect on individual and organizational performance. And indeed, it does. A number of research studies have established that businesses with a lower degree of employee engagement (i.e. lower connection) are more likely to experience lower productivity, customer satisfaction, profitability and employee retention than their more connected competitors.
Reconnecting People in Organizations
All of this evidence shows that it is rational for organizations to be intentional about increasing connection among their members. Organizations need to consider how much connection to encourage and where connection is most needed in their organizations. All human beings require a degree of connection to thrive. Individuals in work groups that require a high degree of trust, cooperation and creativity will benefit the most from connection. The wisest organizations make employee engagement and connection a part of their strategic process. They do this by involving business leaders who decide where connection provides business benefits and assessing the degree of present connection from annual employee engagement survey results. When gaps are identified, a qualitative analysis is undertaken after which action plans are put in place to close the gaps with planned follow-up to provide accountability.
Leading organizations today are implementing a variety of actions to increase connection. Pixar Animation created its Pixar University where employees can spend up to four hours each week taking classes alongside their colleagues and the Latin motto of Pixar University translated into English means “Alone No Longer.” Each Friday afternoon Genentech has “Ho-Hos,” where employees gather to socialize and enjoy the free food and beverages to company provides to encourage participation. Google provides asthetically appealing offices with free gourmet food, massages, workout facilities, childcare and other perks so that employees want to work in the office rather than at home. Employee blogs, mentorship programs and employee affinity groups are additional means to increase connection.
Keeping people “in the loop” about issues that are important to them increases connection. Anne Mulcahy of Xerox, A.G. Lafley of Procter and Gamble, and Mark Hurd of Hewlett-Packard are a few high-profile leaders who travel extensively and hold face-to-face meetings to inform employees, customers and other stakeholders about important issues and to seek their opinions before making decisions on those issues. Leadership training programs such as General Electric’s center at Crotonville, New York also bring employees together and help meet the need for connection.
IBM implements firm-wide “jams” using social networking technologies that allow everyone to participate in the conversation about issues such as IBM’s values, sustainability and innovation. It also uses several social networking tools to increase connection. One such tool is a Facebook-like internal site named “Beehive.” Another is a personalized internal directory called “Profiles.”
As connection becomes a competitive necessity, organizations will need to become more intentional about creating opportunities for connection. Only the organizations that master connection will attract, retain and engage the talent they need to meet market opportunities.
Michael Lee Stallard is the president and co-founder of E Pluribus Partners, a consulting firm that helps organizations create Connection Cultures to increase employee and customer engagement. He is the primary author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Increase Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity. His free, downloadable e-book on connection is available by clicking on employee engagement.