Lasting Change = Head Knowledge + Heart Knowledge

August 10, 2021
Mike Stallard

It’s one thing to know something intellectually—to learn interesting new data, to gain an understanding of why something works the way it does, to be inspired by a message—but if it stops there and you don’t develop heart knowledge, then you’re less likely to see meaningful or lasting change as a result. In our busy and full lives we need to engage both our head and our heart if something is going to “stick” and make a difference. It takes assent and action, knowing and doing, to arrive at “I understand. That makes sense. Now that I’ve experienced it, I get it.” Having a personal experience that validates or reinforces the head knowledge is often what it takes to know it in your heart and for the information to sink in and affect your attitudes, your words or your behaviors going forward.

Consider a toddler being warned by her mother, “That’s hot. Don’t touch it.” You hope the words of instruction—that new piece of head knowledge—will be sufficient, but often it’s not. When the young child gets too close to the heat source, feels the heat of the open flame or touches the side of a hot object and registers pain, that personal experience leads to heart knowledge.

In working with groups to increase connection in the workplace so each individual can thrive, we begin with head knowledge and help people develop a connection mindset. We frame connection as a superpower that makes individuals and groups perform at their best and disconnection as a super-stressor that sabotages performance. We support this information with videos of experiments and explanations of research studies and relevant findings, all to help people process the knowledge we’re sharing. With that foundation in place, we begin to build a connection skill set of attitudes, uses of language and behaviors they might employ to foster an environment that is rich in relational connection. They come away convinced of the importance of connection in their personal and work lives as well as equipped to take action.

But we would be remiss if imparting knowledge was all we did. It’s important that people begin to develop heart knowledge about connection, so we make sure our time together is interactive. We spend time discussing their own past work experiences and how they square with what we’re sharing about connection and disconnection—whether they felt fired up or burned out, and how the team functioned under those circumstances. We incorporate exercises that allow people to experience connection as they practice skills they can use with their colleagues as soon as they are back in their workplace.

The wrong approach: one without the other

Connection seems disarmingly simple and common sense. So why don’t we see more of it? As Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton explain in The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, their research shows common sense is surprisingly uncommon in practice. In other words, these common sense practices have failed to make it from leaders’ heads to their hearts.

In the context of promoting the need for connection in the workplace and how to create and maintain a connection culture, I (Mike) have witnessed how the knowing-doing gap has held organizations back as leaders have fallen for one or more of the following fallacies (I’ve given each a label to make them easier to remember):

  • “Common Sense” fallacy. Because actions that boost connection reflect common sense, they are assumed to be occurring in the organization (when in fact they are not). In this instance, leaders know something intellectually but aren’t emotionally invested enough to follow through.
  • “Seduced by a Management Fad” fallacy. Leaders are seduced by sophisticated-sounding management fads, so there is an utter failure to implement simple, commonsense actions that boost connection and have the greatest effect on results.
  • “Only Give Me the Practical” fallacy. Leaders want to get straight to the practical and actionable in training. Without grounding people in why connection is important and how it works, actions that boost connection don’t take root. This is akin to doing without knowing.
  • “Failure to Measure” fallacy. Leaders see connection as so obvious they fail to measure it, which signals to employees that connection is unimportant, and, as a result, they don’t follow through on actions that boost connection.

The right approach: connecting the two

As humans we are hardwired to connect. More and more scientific studies confirm the benefits that positive connection has on us emotionally and biologically. It’s interesting to note that the brain and heart (and gut) are connected by the vagus nerve, which is the largest nerve in the human body. Our physical head and heart are designed to work together to develop a whole body experience. If we are to overcome the knowing-doing gap we should follow the model of this natural partnership between head and heart, and ensure we are engaging both our intellect and our emotions in a way that drives us to “walk the talk” when it comes to connecting with other people.

We spoke with a surgeon one time about her experience of learning to infuse connection into the team she was leading in the operating room. She shared that she was given the option of working with an executive coach when she became a supervisor at Mayo Clinic. The executive coach helped her to realize that her “driver, get it done, make it better” manner was actually conveying indifference, and that her team didn’t believe she cared about them as people but merely thought of them as means to an end. This was a blind spot for her. She assumed they knew she liked them and they mattered to her. Often the coach would circle back to “How did you feel? How do you think the other person felt?” The coach had her begin taking small steps to express and show that she cared. As her team members responded positively, the physician could feel her actions were connecting with them. The combination of understanding the rationale behind the action and feeling its impact gave her a whole body experience and knowledge that took her understanding to a new and higher level.

Through coaching, the surgeon came to embrace the power of words, emotion and connection. Later, when she moved to another healthcare organization that didn’t provide executive coaching, she hired her own coach out of her pocket and continued to work on her leadership practices, including in the operating room. With continued work on combining head and heart knowledge, she and her team implemented changes that improved patient outcomes.

People may intellectually understand why something is desirable but they need to experience the positive emotions that come from doing it and feel the impact in order for it to settle into the heart.


Don’t let the knowing-doing gap become your story. Be intentional and action-oriented about developing a connection mindset and connection skills then put that knowledge to use! As you work to develop a connection culture in the group you’re in and within your organization, people will experience connection and observe the difference that it makes. As you continue implementing ways to boost connection, watch what happens over time. With each effort you and your colleagues make, you gain momentum toward a fully connected culture.

NOTE: Portions of this article were excerpted from Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, 2nd edition.

About the Authors

Katharine P. Stallard is a co-author of this article. She is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to Connection Culture.

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.

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

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