People Want to Connect

Last week I wrote about how to get people interested in your strategy and change initiatives, and the importance of being real and using plain language to make this happen.

But there’s a piece missing in there about whether we want to connect in the first place – and why.

An effort to connect people to your bigger picture assumes a couple of important things:

1)      If you don’t get your people on your side, your whole change process is going to go nowhere

2)      People want to be connected with.

Both of these things are true, and this week I want to dig a bit deeper on the second point.

I recently conducted a bit of an informal science experiment to this effect. I spent a few days in Melbourne with an old friend a few weeks ago, greatly enhanced by a couple of waterfront beers on a Thursday night. A discussion about talking to strangers led to my hypothesis that pretty much all people – even the most cynical and hostile (in fact, especially the most cynical and hostile) – want and need to connect with others.

We seriously get in our own way on this front. So much of the apprehension and doubt we have about talking to strangers is a reflection of our own fears and hang-ups, rather than a representation of the way people are likely to respond to us.

“…people simply want to connect – especially if we make it easy for them. The key is to soak up the discomfort for both of you.”

Ultimately, this conversation led to an hour or two, as we made our way through the CBD, of sporadic conversations with people next to us.  Whether it was conversation at the traffic lights, connection over a shop counter, asking for directions on the street, or making new friends outside a burger bar, we actively connected with the people around us, to see how they responded.

One particularly good conversation at a convenience store included a full reveal of the experiment, where a lovely Irish fellow and I both agreed that people simply want to connect – especially if we make it easy for them. The key is to soak up the discomfort for both of you. After a couple of beers, I’m quite happy to do that, it seems.

(Full disclosure, there was one person who was baffled and mildly fearful of my attempt to chat. I possibly went a bit sales-y on that guy…. But every other person we spoke to was helpful, polite, friendly and happy to share!)

“Communication is merely an exchange of information, but connection is an exchange of our humanity.”  Sean Stephenson, Get Off Your ‘But’

It was a great experiment, and one that makes me think a lot about how we handle connection with our teams and colleagues. There is so much lost potential for connection inside our professional lives – somehow, the need to fulfil this key human drive has lost status inside long to-do lists of ‘more important’ work and we’ve converted it into conversations about buy-in, engagement and communication.

In his book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect Matthew Lieberman has some interesting research about the way our brains work, which supports my little Melbourne experiment. Lieberman argues that connecting with other people is a primary need – even more fundamental than our need for food or shelter. Lieberman argues that while schools and workplaces go to great lengths to minimise social ‘distractions’, this is actually counterintuitive, and shuts down a powerful part our brain that can be harnessed for learning, productivity and wellbeing.

I had lunch with a client and friend recently, who was talking about the frustrating and distant leadership style of an old boss – “if she had just made the effort to connect with us, we all would have behaved so differently.” Have you had an experience like this – with a boss, or a staff member?

Lieberman suggests that good leaders are strong on the interpersonal front – we know this one – but that they also look to social motivators to lead, like opportunities for connection and a sense of fairness.

I genuinely believe that people don’t get up in the morning wanting to be unhelpful, cynical or disengaged. They certainly don’t get up and come to work with the intention to get in the way – in fact most of them are motivated to do a good job, and want to be supported to do that.

Unfortunately, we can make that unnecessarily difficult, by turning human instinct into a transactional process that benefits no-one.

The antidote? Connect with people – in a real way – first.

Before attempting to “build buy in” “promote engagement” or “facilitate progress” consider the more human aspects of your interaction!

How to: Connect More Meaningfully at Work (Plain Language Version)

-          Talk to people about things other than work

-          Ask them what they think about things

-          Learn things about them that you remember later

-          Share your own vulnerability and embarrassment

-          Soak up potential discomfort for them so you can both live in a safe space. Beers optional.

Til next week

-          A