By Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard
Our focus is on the importance of human connection and cultivating a culture of connection in the workplace, but what we’ve learned about connection applies beyond the realm of our work lives. The principles are relevant for individuals, community groups, sports teams, nations and even families. Knowing that a connection deficit negatively affects our own health and well-being, the health of groups and the health of society, we’ve become concerned observing how the pace and stress of life threaten to squeeze out time for supportive, lifegiving relationships and endeavors. Improving connection in the home can lead toward a more fulfilling life and healthier communities, organizations and nations.
As humans, we are hardwired to connect. Matthew Lieberman, a prominent neuroscientist, refers to human connection as a superpower because it makes us smarter, happier and more productive. It also makes us more resilient to cope with stress.
A growing body of research establishes that connection improves wellness, well-being and performance throughout our lifetime. Here are a few of the findings:
- Babies and infants who feel connected are healthier.
- Primary and secondary students who feel connected to their teachers and classmates perform better academically.
- College students who feel connected are less likely to experience anxiety, depression, addiction and suicide ideation, and they perform better academically.
- Seniors who feel connected are mentally and physically healthier and live longer.
Child psychology research describes love in a family in terms of forming “secure attachments,” a synonym for human connections. In Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, we wrote:
When John Bowlby studied homeless and orphaned children following World War II, he found that children who experienced little or no connection developed emotional and behavioral problems. … Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby’s onetime student and eventual colleague, went on to conduct research on infants that identified patterns of connection that are formed in early childhood. The attachment patterns she identified were shown to affect the development of social skills, confidence, curiosity and exploratory behavior, enthusiasm, persistence in problem solving, and the ability to cope with ambiguity, change, and stress. Children with secure attachments developed well, whereas children with insecure attachments developed poorly.
Children who form secure attachments feel loved and safe and, as a result, are more likely to set out to explore the world knowing that they can return to their parents for comfort and protection if they feel unsafe or threatened. In contrast, children who develop insecure attachments are constantly on alert and they are less likely to wander around exploring their world. They are also more likely to cling to objects that provide comfort as a substitute attachment figure, often a favorite toy or blanket. (Some clinging to objects is natural but too much clinging to objects may be a sign that they are substituting it for human connection that they would typically get from a parent or caregiver.) Absent a secure attachment pattern that is formed in the human brain, children will develop one of several insecure attachment patterns that make it more difficult for them to regulate their emotions when they feel threatened or unsafe.
When children feel connected to their family, they are more confident that they are lovable and it is easier for them to love others rather than self-protect by withholding their love. It also makes them feel confident to take risks and more likely to have high aspirations. Stated another way, the love and human connection children receive at home and in their community gives them courage, which, interestingly, is derived from the French word coeur, meaning heart.
Relational cultures either connect or disconnect people
In our research, we identified three types of relational cultures: cultures of connection, cultures of control and cultures of indifference. With cultures of control, those with power rule over the rest. It breeds an environment in which people fear to make mistakes or take risks. In some cases, the dominant person uses means that result in emotional or physical abuse. In cultures of indifference, people are so busy with tasks they don’t take time to connect which results in neglect. Cultures of control and indifference are disconnecting and can leave people feeling marginalized, lonely, underappreciated or uncertain. In cultures of connection, people humbly love and serve one another so that everyone feels a bond of connection that helps them thrive, individually and collectively.
We teach that cultures of connection exist when leaders communicate an inspiring vision to serve the greater good, they value people rather than think of and treat them as mere means to an end and they have the humility to give people a voice by seeking people’s ideas and opinions then considering them when possible before making decisions. Cultures of connection are cultivated when leaders attend to the three elements of Vision, Value and Voice.
The word “culture” is derived from Latin and French words that refer to care and tilling the ground for agricultural purposes. It’s helpful to think of culture creation as being cultivated as we would cultivate a garden. For flowers to bloom their best, a gardener must attend to the garden’s need for water, sun and nutrients in the soil as well as any necessary weeding, pruning and protection from predators. Are the conditions conducive for healthy growth so the plants will flourish and be all they were created to be? Are there any conditions that are inhibiting growth? Are there any external factors that may harm the plants?
Cultivating a culture of connection in a family
What might cultivating a culture of connection look like in the context of a family? What attitudes, uses of language or behaviors that work in an organizational setting could you use that will foster connection at home, whether your role is a leader (i.e., parent) or a colleague (i.e., a family member)?
Vision is about identity. Chances are you don’t have vision, mission and values statements for your family carefully word-smithed the way a business organization would (though we know a few families who have thoughtfully done this). It’s worth taking the time to have conversations that explore these questions: “Who are we as a family?,” “What do we believe in?” and “What character qualities are important to us?”
The family of Alan Mulally, one of the greatest business leaders of all time, provides a helpful example when it comes to cultivating connection through Vision. Alan’s parents taught him maxims that communicated the importance of forming human connections through humility, love and service. Before he headed off to school, his mother or father would often say, “remember, honey, the purpose of life is to love and be loved, with the first of those being the most important” or “Alan, remember, ‘to serve is to live.’” Other maxims he regularly heard included, “respect everyone; we are all creatures of God and worthy to be loved,” “it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice,” “seek to understand, before seeking to be understood,” and “by working together with others, you can make the most positive contributions to the most people.” Nearly every one of the maxims Mulally was taught had the effect of drawing people closer to one another (i.e., connecting them) as opposed to pushing them apart from one another (i.e., disconnecting them).
The love Alan felt in his family had a huge impact on him and it informed the kind of leader he became. Alan applied “humility, love and service leadership” to lead complex projects to impressive results at Boeing Commercial Airplanes and save Ford Motor Company when he was their CEOs. The year he retired from Ford, Fortune magazine named him one of the three best leaders in the world.
Value is about recognizing the inherent value of each individual and treating them with dignity and respect; it is loving each other as individuals and not thinking of or treating others as mere means to an end. When we take time to serve one another out of love, it connects us.
There are a multitude of ways to demonstrate Value at home through actions we take that serve the other person and show we care. This may mean intentionally arranging your work calendar to prioritize attending a child’s concert or sporting event, making your spouse’s coffee in the morning or taking a turn to clean up the kitchen after a meal. It’s also the words we use (and the volume and tone of voice). When we see our child doing something right, it’s affirming them for what it says about them and not just what they did. And when we see them doing something wrong, it’s correcting them in a measured way that reflects our love for them rather than lashing out in anger or frustration.
As a family, Value is having meals together and using that time gathered around the table to ask each family member about what happened throughout the day. It’s less about checking up on them (what they did) and more about checking in with them (how they are doing). Listen closely and ask follow-up questions to draw out more of the story.
As a parent, look for opportunities that show your child how serving others is a way to express love and enhance connection. Giving children chores teaches them to do their part as a member of the family. As they get older, having jobs such as mowing a neighbor’s lawn, babysitting or bagging groceries gives them the experience of serving others in the community. We know families who volunteer at a local soup kitchen together or choose to spend a school vacation serving for a week at an orphanage in a poorer area.
Voice is about having the humility to seek the opinions and ideas of others. It is about bringing people “into the loop” and including them so they feel informed. At home, this might look like asking family members what they want to do on a family trip being planned. It might be steering conversations toward topics they are interested in. As children notice that you are factoring in what you learn about a family member’s interests and preferences, it makes them feel more connected. Encouraging children to “seek to understand before seeking to be understood,” as Alan Mulally’s parents taught him, will remind them to give others a voice too.
Here’s a best practice that combines all three elements: have a weekly family meeting on Sunday. What you cover will depend on the ages and attention spans of the participants. At a minimum, use it as an opportunity for each family member to share what is coming up in the week ahead and how they feel about it. This gives you a chance to get relevant details in the calendar as well as anticipate issues and make plans to address them. (Are all the sports uniforms clean, permission slips signed, birthday gifts purchased, etc.? How is the essay for English or the important business proposal coming along? Try-outs are Thursday so let’s keep Wednesday as stress-free as possible.) More importantly, it gets everyone “on the same page” so they can go into the week from a “we” rather than “me” standpoint and be supportive of one another.
Connection’s positive role in moving us forward
Today, people are longing for connection. America was suffering from an epidemic of loneliness before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the social isolation we experienced during the pandemic made it worse. Human connection is essential for our health, happiness and flourishing in life. Because technology is ubiquitous today, meeting our need for connection can be challenging. It requires putting down our smartphones, tablets and PCs then engaging with others to develop meaningful connections with the people around us. We’re optimistic and believe that re-connecting in our homes, workplaces and communities will lead to a bright future.
About the Authors
Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.
Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.