How to Improve Your Organization's Culture Through Employee Connections

March 31, 2019
Mike Stallard

I believe it’s wise for leaders to develop their organizational culture by being intentional about strengthening the bonds of connection and trust among leaders and employees. As the president of a company that helps coach leaders on improving connections within their businesses, I have seen the importance of strengthening bonds and trust among team members.

There are three steps I've developed throughout my coaching practice that can help build strong connections within your organization:

Step 1: Develop a connection mindset

First, leaders should educate their team members that human connections help satisfy the universal needs employees have, such as respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth, meaning and progress. I believe when their needs are met, employees thrive, and the organization can gain a performance advantage.

In my experience, needs are met as people become more connected to their colleagues. For example, when you first join a team at work, you expect to be respected. As time passes, you hope to receive recognition and develop a sense of belonging from feeling like part of the team. You also anticipate having the autonomy to do your job without being micromanaged, as well as experience a sense of personal growth from becoming more competent and mastering your role. Finally, you expect to see that your work will benefit others in some way and that you are making progress toward that end.

As a leader, think about what your words and actions communicate to those who report to you and your colleagues. For example, do team members understand that the quality of connection can affect the level of cooperation and collaboration? Do they feel that you value each person as a unique individual and as part of the team? Do they know you are there for them and want to see them succeed? Show them that connections within the group are encouraged and necessary.

Step 2: Cultivate connection

Having tasks done well is important, but I believe leaders who care about having employees engaged recognize and embrace that the relational aspect of work is critical. Leaders cultivate connection when they consistently communicate a meaningful vision, value team members and give them a voice. Here’s a fictional example of what that might look like:

Let's say a man named Tom owns a number of exercise and workout facilities across a city. He communicates a meaningful vision by reminding employees that they are making a difference by helping people live healthy lives and developing healthy communities. He has distilled it into the memorable phrase: “healthy lives, healthy communities.”

Tom values people by getting to know all his employees’ names, their interests outside of work and their hopes for their careers. He’s committed to helping them learn and grow through training programs and a mentoring network. He also gives employees a voice by keeping them informed of how the company is doing financially and by sharing operating metrics. He discusses what he thinks can grow the business and how changes might impact the community — and he asks what employees think about it. Tom listens to his employees and implements the best ideas; he then celebrates those employees who contributed ideas that improved results.

As a leader, I believe it's important to show even the fairly new employees that you're sincere when you ask, “What do you think?” or “How can we do this even better?” In my experience, as a result of your intentional efforts to foster connection, your company can have high employee engagement, high customer engagement and low employee turnover.

Step 3: Remove obstacles to connection

Just as there are actions a leader can take that can enhance connections, I believe there are also attitudes, language and behaviors that break the sense of connection and should be avoided.

Take, for instance, a situation that requires giving a colleague feedback on a project that is not going well. As a leader, are you motivated by wanting to ensure your colleague knows what is expected and how to make improvements? Are you offering help and checking that they have the resources needed to do the work, or are you feeling the pressure and putting your frustration on the other person? If you anticipate the conversation might be challenging, hold it in a private space, and don’t lead with criticism. Otherwise, you might make your colleague feel defensive, which will make having an honest and productive dialogue less likely.

Another obstacle some businesses face is successfully training others about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Many organizations even require unconscious bias training. But according to the Harvard Business Review, this type of training isn't necessarily the most effective because it can actually "activate bias or spark a backlash."

I believe it is wise on many fronts to expand the discussion beyond the anticipated focus on race and gender because it could help minimize the potential for making team members feel alienated. More importantly, emphasize fostering a connection culture for all. This can help create an environment that maximizes each individual’s contribution, and it could boost the team’s overall performance.

In my opinion, implementing these three steps will help protect your organization from incivility and boost performance through an increase in connections, which facilitates better communication, collaboration and cooperation.

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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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