Author and Consultant Michael Lee Stallard

Is there a “best” team and organizational culture? Countless books, podcasts, webinars and workshops offer do’s and don’ts on leading people and how to win at work. The sheer volume of opinions and approaches available reinforces that over the last hundred years of scientific inquiry there has not been a consensus on the definitions of, or a general theoretical model for, leadership or organizational culture.

In recent years, however, two trends have emerged. The first is that scholars are finding organizations are comprised of a complex web of intricate relationships best captured by theories of complexity. The second trend is that effective leaders foster positive relationships and care about people. “Connection” is cited as an emerging general theory of leadership and organizational culture that integrates these trends, according to The Connection Value Chain: Impact of Connection Culture and Employee Motivation on Perceived Team Performance, a recently published doctoral dissertation by Jon Rugg, PhD.

Applying a “one size fits all” culture isn’t realistic in today’s increasingly diverse and global working world. That said, I believe organizations that have sustainable high performance will have a common foundation to their culture – elements that enable them to be their best.

Connection Is the X-factor

Team and organizational cultures can be viewed as either emotionally connecting people or emotionally isolating them. Why do leaders need to care whether or not an employee feels connected? Research has found that social connection is a primal human need that appears to improve the cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems’ performance. Viewed from the opposite side, research has shown that lacking sufficient connection is associated with poorer cognitive performance, impaired executive control and self-regulation, lower levels of self-rated physical health, substance abuse, depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. Given these findings, it should be no surprise that greater loneliness in the workplace has been found to result in poorer task, team role and relational performance. Employees who feel regularly left out, lonely or out of the loop are not going to be able to do their best work and may not wish to.

In the research my colleagues and I conducted we found that isolation typically results from excessive control behaviors, or by excessive busyness and indifference to the human need for connection. Cultures that connect people (which we have termed “connection cultures”) are best for individual well-being and for helping organizations thrive. Specifically, cultures that intentionally connect people to their work, their colleagues and the organization as a whole convey several performance advantages upon organizations including higher employee engagement, tighter strategic alignment, better decisions, higher rate of innovation and greater agility to cope with faster changes taking place today. These benefits combine to provide a significant performance and competitive advantage.

Today’s Connection Deficit

Media have reported on the current loneliness epidemic, including in the workplace. And what about the many people don’t think of themselves as lonely and yet the demands of work and task-oriented activities such as time in front of screens have crowded out time for meaningful relationships? That was my experience, earlier in my career. Today’s connection deficit is a risk to individuals and organizations, especially those with cultures of control or indifference. Leaders would be wise not to ignore it. 

Over the coming decade the workforce may become even more disconnected. Consider that research on adolescents, the next wave of incoming employees, has found they spend more time interacting with electronic devices and less time interacting with each other. Furthermore, artificial intelligence may diminish people’s ability to connect as an unintended consequence of spending more time interacting with machines.

What Leaders Can Do

To boost connection, leaders first need to develop a connection mindset throughout their organization. This means that people at all levels recognize and appreciate that human connection is a necessity and a lack of connection is unhealthy and can sabotage success. Second, people need to learn the attitudes, uses of language, and behaviors that are connecting. Some of these are universal and others will be shaped by local customs and the organization’s vision, mission and values. Training, mentoring and coaching are valuable in moving from an aspirational to an actual culture of connection.

Our memorable formula to help leaders create a connection culture is Vision + Value + Voice. Simply stated, leaders connect people when they communicate a Vision that inspires and unites people, Value people as human beings and not just means to an end, and give people a Voice to express their opinions and ideas.

Alan Mulally at Ford

A leader who created a connection culture is Alan Mulally. When he arrived at Ford Motor Company in 2006 to be CEO, sales, market share and profits were declining as its culture of infighting drove Ford to the verge of bankruptcy. Here are a few of the ways that he put the power of connection to work as he led the turnaround.

He reminded employees of the inspiring Vision put forth by founder Henry Ford of “opening the highways for all mankind.” Mulally described Ford’s contribution to society as giving people “freedom of mobility [to] access opportunities for growth.”

Mulally boosted Value in the Ford culture when he said leaders need to care about and value people in order to connect with them. He often used the phrases “One Ford” and “working together always works.” In meetings, he prohibited people from using humor at the expense of others.

Mulally increased the element of Voice by seeking people’s ideas and opinions, considering them and acting on the best ideas. A primary vehicle for this was the weekly Business Plan Review (BPR) meeting that was attended in person or by teleconference by the global leadership team as well as all business and functional leaders. 

When Mulally announced his retirement in May 2014, he had led Ford to 19 consecutive profitable quarters and rising market share in North America. Connection was not only good for the individual employees of Ford, it was good for the bottom line. Senior leaders who want their organizations to reach their potential are intentional about developing and sustaining cultures of connection that promote superior organizational outcomes. The net benefit amounts to better employee and organizational performance.

About Michael Lee Stallard

Michael Lee Stallard, president and cofounder of E Pluribus Partners and Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of “Connection Culture” and “Fired Up or Burned Out.”