Good Culture is High-Quality Connections

For as critical to our happiness as workplace culture can be, I think it’s a concept that’s difficult to define. When the culture isn’t right, we know it, but it can be challenging to know what exactly isn’t working or what would be better instead. These two paragraphs from the recent HBR article, “We Learn More When We Learn Together” by Jane E. Dutton and Emily Heaphy, help to put some structure around the idea for me, and ring true as I consider the times in my career when I’ve been happy at work, and times when I’ve felt less than fulfilled.

What are high-quality connections? They’re the connections with other people in which we feel positive regard, mutuality, and vitality. Positive regard is the sense that someone sees the best in us, even if we are only connected for a short time. Mutuality means we feel a sense of responsiveness and openness from another person. Finally, vitality captures the heightened sense of energy we feel when deeply connected to someone else — as if we are more alive in the moment.

High-quality connections are what Barbara Fredrickson calls micro moments of love. Don’t let the word “love” scare you. These moments of aliveness in connection with others create a sense of safety and enhanced capability that become a powerful platform for development. We grow in high-quality connections because our thinking is broadened, we absorb knowledge more quickly, our action repertoire is expanded, and we are more engaged, playful, open, and resilient in the face of setbacks. High-quality connections stand in stark contrast to low-quality connections, in which feelings of inadequacy, defensiveness, and lack of safety undercut growth possibilities.

Lots of things matter in the making of a fulfilling career, and different things to different people at different times in life. But I think, universally, it’s the connections we have with others that matter most. It’s not the money, or promotion, or the big office. It’s not the flexible schedule or reasonable hours or sweet break room snacks. And yet, I think relationships are the element in most working environments that we leave the most to chance. We try to hire the right people and build skillful teams, but we rarely work deliberately at fostering these high-quality connections, and we never talk about it overtly.

From my perpetual seat in the middle of the org chart, I’ve seen a lot of missed opportunity from leaders. Organizational leadership doesn’t determine the culture entirely, but I think the influence they carry is worth real consideration–for the tone they set, the style they model and the parameters they define. How are decisions made, for example? Whose voices matter? What information is shared openly, and what is kept to only the highest ranked? These are the elements of culture that reflect the values we hold about relationships. Leaders who don’t model that relationships matter set a a value chain in motion that is difficult for others to break.

And yet chronically, we don’t train our leaders with these skills and awareness. Instead, we promote people into leadership roles who were successful in their functional roles previously. We assume that, by some magical transition, these people will become leaders or figure it out as they go. I’m not sold on the idea that leadership should be a trial-and-error endeavor by design. Can’t we better prepare our leaders for success, for their own sake and the sake of their teams?

I’m curious about the deliberate steps we can take as individuals and organizations to build high-quality connections. I think it would be too easy to assume that these kinds of relationships come about only serendipitously, though I think that sometimes they do. What personal attributes can I cultivate to make these connections more likely? What organizational dynamics help support cultures of connection? How can we lead from the middle by modeling the kind of leadership we want to see?

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