How Loneliness And Longing For Connection Are Affecting Today's Leaders

February 23, 2019
Mike Stallard

In the opening scene of Maniac, the Netflix hit starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, a scientist states these sobering words:

Hypothesis: All souls are on a quest to connect.
Corollary: Our minds have no awareness of this quest ... Camaraderie, communion, family, friendship, love, what have you. We are lost without connection. It’s quite terrible to be alone.

Maniac goes on to portray what our world might look like if people never discovered their souls were on a quest to connect and thus loneliness-fueled anxiety, depression and addiction became pervasive.

Creatives have their fingers on the pulse of culture. The word “connection” is popping up in taglines and ads; new books on the need for connection are being written, such as The Culture Code, Back to Human and The Crisis of Connection; and loneliness and the longing to connect is the heart of Dear Evan Hansen, the Tony-winning musical on Broadway.

“Haunting,” was the response one woman shared with me after watching the music video of OneRepublic’s hit song Connection. The video had nearly 9 million views on YouTube in the first month. In the video, lead singer Ryan Tedder wanders around the Oculus, the distinctive centerpiece of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York City, as the people all around him merely stare at the palms of their hands as if lost in a smartphone-induced trance.

Loneliness is a Super-Stressor (And Lethal)

Loneliness needs to be on your radar. In seminars and workshops my colleagues and I teach on leadership and team culture, we describe loneliness as a super-stressor that:

  • Increases vulnerability to other stressors (such as work or financial stress)
  • Leads to greater feelings of helplessness and perceived threat
  • Impairs cognitive function
  • Decreases the effectiveness of sleep
  • Diminishes self-control (including with diet and exercise)
  • Contributes to depression

These and other symptoms of loneliness are described in the book Loneliness by the late John Cacioppo, Ph.D.

Meta-analysis studies published by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and colleagues in 2010 and 2015 found that low social connection is associated with a risk of early death that is similar to or greater than that of "other well-accepted risk factors, including smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day and obesity," whereas greater social connections are associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death. Holt-Lunstad has argued that loneliness is an epidemic in America and other democracies around the world.

Connection is a Superpower (And Life-Giving)

The antidote to loneliness -- connection -- is described by UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, author of Social, as a “superpower” that makes us smarter, happier and more productive. Similar to the pronouncement in Maniac, Lieberman notes that the need for connection is a blind spot for most people. Evoking images of Superman and playing up the superpower analogy, Lieberman calls this blind spot our “kryptonite.”

I can resonate with that imagery. During college and again while working on Wall Street, I experienced anxiety and burnout. My body was signaling me that I needed connection and the physiological and emotional boost it provides. At the time, I didn’t get it. I didn’t know that humans are “hardwired” to connect and that when we run a connection deficit we begin to dysfunction. I had too much to do -- relational time would have to wait. In hindsight, I came to realize I had been lonely, despite being surrounded by people and having positive relationships. I don’t think the broad theme of my story is unusual.

So what does the loneliness epidemic and longing for connection mean for leaders? First, they need to have a connection mindset, which means they understand that connection is a superpower and loneliness is a super-stressor. Second, they need to make sure their own need for connection is being met. Finally, leaders need to be intentional about cultivating cultures of connection in the teams and organizations they lead.

When leaders cultivate cultures of connection, the benefits extend beyond the individuals to the performance of the teams and organizations as well. In our research, we found organizations with higher connection experience a performance advantage from higher employee engagement, tighter strategic alignment, better quality of decision making and a higher rate of innovation. Engaged, connected team members keep progress moving forward; lonely, disconnected people may stall or even sabotage progress. Because humans are hardwired to connect, no individual or organization can perform well for a sustained period of time without it.

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Michael Lee Stallard 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.

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