Seven Practices That Protect Your Organization From the Lethality of Loneliness

February 19, 2019
Mike Stallard

Rising loneliness is taking a toll on Americans. While this may seem like a personal matter, and not one that leaders of organizations should address, I would beg to differ. The health and well-being of your employees has a direct bearing on the health and well-being of your organization. Employees who feel lonely or left out are less engaged, less energetic and more likely to work against the interests of your organization. They are also more likely to leave your organization. As a leader, you have an opportunity to create and maintain a culture that will counteract loneliness.

Normally associated with diseases, we are now seeing the word “epidemic” used in conjunction with loneliness because of how widespread it is becoming and for the effects it has on mind and body. Cigna, the insurance company, recently announced that “most American adults are considered lonely.” Cigna’s research findings are based on a survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults who completed the 20-question UCLA Loneliness Scale. Other research supports that America is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. Even half of CEOs report feeling lonely.

The lethality of loneliness became more apparent with the publication of a recent study that found participants who reported loneliness or social isolation had a risk of early death that is on par with that caused by smoking and exceeds the risk of early death from obesity.

The antidote to loneliness is feeling connected to other human beings. The neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says in his TED Talk that human connection (which he calls “social”) is a superpower because it makes people “smarter, happier and more productive.” My colleagues and I have found that human connection is a superpower for organizations, too, because it boosts the cognitive firepower of employees, increases employee engagement, tightens strategic alignment, improves decision making quality and boosts the rate of innovation. These five benefits add up to a powerful performance and competitive advantage.

Immersed in the field of helping leaders develop and maintain cultures that are good for the health and performance of individuals and organizations, we have identified leaders and managers in organizations who have developed cultures of connection and the key practices they employ. Below are seven practices of managers in organizations we’ve worked with or studied that you can use to increase human connection in your organization’s culture.

1. Develop and use identity phrases that inspire and unite people

New York Presbyterian Hospital uses the identity phrase “Amazing Things Are Happening Here” and provides videos of patient stories that back up the claim. Costco, a consulting client of mine, uses the phrase “Do the Right Thing” to describe its ethical values. Another client, Texas Christian University (TCU), uses the phrase “Lead On” along with its mission: "to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community.”

2. Provide onboard training in cohorts

The Ambulatory Care Group of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, also a consulting client, organizes its new frontline employees into cohorts of approximately 24-30 individuals and puts them through three straight weeks of training. During this time, individuals in the cohort develop a sense of connection and supportive relationships that last beyond the training period.

3. Get to know names and something memorable about each individual

Ryan Watkins, the general manager of a Costco Warehouse in Oregon, takes the time to get to know the names and something memorable about his 280 employees. By doing this, he sends the message that he values each individual. Others have followed his lead in adopting this simple way of building connection.

4. Encourage people to connect

Google, with which I've previously connected through the Authors@Google series, provides free meals to all employees and guests (and I can attest that the food is excellent). This encourages Googlers to use Google’s dining facilities, where they inevitably connect with colleagues while taking a break from their to-do lists. Treating employees to lunch may not be in the budget, but you can foster an environment in which people are not looked at as slackers for not eating at their desks and working through lunch. Plus, according to psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, “When you make time at least every four to six hours for a 'human moment,' a face-to-face exchange with a person you like, you are giving your brain what it needs” to help prevent it from overloading.

5. Provide opportunities for people from different departments to mix

At Pixar Animation, employees at all levels have the option of taking several hours a week to attend classes at the in-house Pixar University. Classes have included drawing, painting, acting and history of animation. Learning alongside others with similar interests who happen to work in other areas of the organization builds connections across Pixar’s departments. Randy Nelson, founding dean of Pixar University, has explained that the courses offered help people across Pixar understand each other better.

6. Ask everyone to engage in innovation and recognize employees whose ideas are implemented

Costco encourages employees to come up with ideas that improve the organization. At Costco’s Annual Managers’ Conference in Seattle last year, which I attended to give the keynote speech, I witnessed video after video of Costco employees from all around the world who had shared their ideas and that Costco had then implemented to great success. Encouraging employees to innovate will stimulate creative conversations and collaboration as employees work together to generate ways to strengthen the business.

7. Hire and promote leaders who care for people, value human connection and personally like to connect

The very best leaders I know deeply care for people and have a mindset that human connection is essential to effective leadership.

These are just a few of the ways you can boost human connection in your organization and provide protection from the lethality of loneliness.

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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.

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