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Connection Culture

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Connection Culture

The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work (Second Edition)


15 min read
8 take-aways
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Give your employees connectedness to improve their health, happiness, engagement and productivity.

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  • Applicable
  • Concrete Examples
  • Engaging


Employee engagement expert Michael Stallard updates his valuable first edition of Connection Culture by addressing the impact of coronavirus on working people who are already suffering loneliness and disconnection. He makes an impassioned and informed plea for prioritizing organizational belonging and connectedness to improve workers’ health and productivity. He and his contributors – Todd W. Hall, Jason Pankau and Katharine P. Stallard – join a chorus of scientists, experts and social commentators who warn of the dire consequences of ever-increasing isolation. The book’s compelling mix of science, workplace stats and medical data makes the case that “social connection” is a fundamental human and workplace need.


  • People are suffering an epidemic of isolation, which COVID-19 exacerbates.
  • Connections among people improve their health, happiness and resilience.
  • Leaders must take the initiative in building a “connection culture” by combining “vision, value and voice.” 
  • The notion of servant – or connected – leadership reigns within connected organizations.
  • Science, psychology and economics provide evidence that relates connectedness to health and productivity.
  • With COVID-19, millions more employees began working remotely. Most expect to continue working from home indefinitely.
  • Organizations with connection cultures lead their industries and have better outcomes in challenging times.
  • To develop into a leader who helps others connect, take care of yourself first.


People are suffering an epidemic of isolation, which COVID-19 exacerbates.

The coronavirus pandemic increases the challenges of maintaining workplace connectivity and belonging. Employee stress and isolation now affect more than two-thirds of workers in the United States.

“The United States and countries around the world are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness.”

Leaders must take deliberate steps to build a “connection culture” for the sake of their organizations and the health of their workers.

Connections among people improve their health, happiness and resilience.

Socially connected people more effectively fend off illness and stress, worry less, stay more alert and suffer fewer heart problems. At work, sound relationships lead to higher engagement and productivity. Organizations that forge a connection culture enjoy significantly greater productivity and profitability than those with control cultures that emphasize hierarchy, or even laissez-faire cultures that grant wide autonomy while focusing on outcomes.

“When it comes to the relational aspects, there is a best culture: a culture that has a high degree of human connection.”

Employees have seven specific and immutable needs at work. Each one derives from research spanning more than a century, including discoveries by A.H. Maslow, Edward Deci and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl. 

Humans at work need:

  1. Respect – They need to be treated well and to treat others as they’d like to be treated. 
  2. Recognition – They need regular praise and specific acknowledgment of good work.
  3. Belonging – They need to be included, have a voice and work with people who care for one another.
  4. Autonomy – They need to determine for themselves how to work and should be allowed to complete their tasks without micromanagement.
  5. “Personal growth” – They need work that matches their strengths and interests, so they can find a pace and level of challenge that leads to a state of flow.
  6. Meaning – They need to connect their work to a higher purpose.
  7. Progress – They need to experience steady results and growth.

Leaders must take the initiative in building a connection culture by combining “vision, value and voice.” 

Vision unites individuals into a team with a common purpose, mission and values. A connected company’s primary values are interpersonal, including the expectation that leaders and colleagues will genuinely care for, respect and appreciate each other. For example, after the Mumbai terrorism incident in 2008, the Tata Group, which owned one of the hotels that the terrorists attacked, took care of all affected employees and their families throughout the ordeals that followed. Founder and CEO Ratan Tata attended every employee funeral and created a company trust fund to provide those who lost a spouse with a salary for life. Due to values that emphasize generosity and caring, Tata ranks as one of the best companies in the world to work for, and is among the most successful and profitable.

“Social connection is a primal human need that appears to improve the performance of the body’s cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems.”

Leaders can combine voice with vision and value by soliciting and listening to employees’ opinions and ideas, and including them when they make decisions. In a connection culture – with support from leaders, supervisors and colleagues – employees take responsibility for building their character strengths and those of their colleagues. Leaders serve the greater purpose and the organization’s mission rather than their own careers or enrichment, and they support the workers who are responsible for accomplishing the firm’s goals. Leaders who involve, include and care for their teams build a lasting foundation for success.

One such leader, Admiral Vernon Clark, revitalized a moribund US Navy by emphasizing people and their connections. As chief of naval operations (CNO), Clark instilled pride in the Navy’s mission, and insisted on continuous learning and development for all sailors and officers. He valued everyone, regardless of rank. By investing in his personnel with better pay and more training, and by encouraging them to speak up and challenge conventional wisdom, Clark built a more resilient Navy. In five years, between 2000 and 2005, he dramatically improved battle readiness and increased re-enlistment by 50%.

At Ford Motor Company, CEO Alan Mulally transformed an ailing company into an industry leader through the concept of “One Ford.” By building relationships with major stakeholders and rewarding leaders who help each other rather than only themselves, Mulally and Ford set a new standard for US auto companies.

Other organizations with inclusive, caring leaders – the Girl Scouts under Frances Hesselbein, Texas Christian University (TCU) under Victor Boschini and the Duke University men’s basketball team under Mike Krzyzewski – have enjoyed sustained brilliance or miraculous rebounds by emphasizing connection, inclusiveness and caring throughout their ranks.

The notion of servant – or connected – leadership reigns within connected organizations.

Connected leaders demonstrate an unwavering commitment to employee enablement through every layer of leadership. Connected leaders learn everyone’s name and who their employees are as people. At TCU, for example, Chancellor Boschini teaches a freshman seminar to stay connected to his university’s purpose. He gets to know each of his students. 

“Connection is what transforms a dog-eat-dog environment into a sled dog team that pulls together.”

At Starbucks, senior executive Howard Behar worked with founder Howard Schultz for more than 20 years to put employees first by rallying them around a vision, eliciting their ideas and listening to them. Behar, who demonstrated servant leadership, helped instill the company’s emphasis on connections – between staff and customers, and between leaders and everyone else in the organization.

Science, psychology and economics provide evidence that links connectedness to health and productivity.

The long-running Harvard Grant Study, which began in 1938, found clear links between social connectedness and stronger relationships, career success, health and longevity among the 238 people it has followed for decades.

In 1979, researchers studied the residents of Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania where citizens enjoyed better health and longer lives than the average American. The townspeople’s better health was due to their unusual – by US standards – levels of connectedness and their high degree of community involvement. These findings led to the term “Roseto Effect.”

Despite mounting evidence of a causal link between connections and relationships with health, happiness, success and longevity, people suffer greater isolation than ever – particularly in the United States. Across the nation, relationships and community have deteriorated dramatically since 1990. Increasing isolation stems from more single households and single parents, dual wage earners, mobile devices, longer commutes, more engrossing technology and extended work hours.

With COVID-19, millions more employees began working remotely. Most expect to continue working from home indefinitely.

The impact of isolation, disconnection and loneliness shows up in alarming American statistics on low engagement, drug abuse, divorce, harmful addictions, and even suicide or other forms of early death. The psychological impact of coronavirus quarantines and separations heightens these issues.

Isolated employees report higher stress, leading to a host of health and social problems, including substance abuse and physical assault. Connected organizations have healthier, more innovative employees who engage more productively with their work and other people.

Connections at work link more strongly to employee engagement than any other factor. Self-control and wellness reflect the degree that a person connects with others. Engaged employees exert more effort, perform at higher levels, align more tightly to the corporate mission, make better decisions, innovate to a greater degree, and prove more agile and resilient. 

Organizations with connection cultures lead their industries and have better outcomes in challenging times.

Connectedness is among the top indicators of long-term organizational success. However, too few leaders build connection with and among employees, thus harming worker health and their firms’ success. Only about 33% of Americans in the workforce experience connection at work. For the other two-thirds, work drags and productivity suffers. Leaders should note the work of infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who seized the initiative to connect with the public and hold themselves and their governments accountable for addressing the coronavirus pandemic crisis through unity and shared purpose.

“Both individually and as a team, set no more than five challenging but achievable annual priorities that are aligned with your organization’s mission.”

Engage with your workforce to identify your core, connected values. Choose no more than five yearly goals that you align to your values and mission. Build stories that you base on your employees’ embodiment of your organization’s values, and reward and recognize their success.

Adjust your hiring, training and incentive programs to select, develop and reward connected behaviors. Where possible, match workers’ strengths and interests to the tasks they perform, and engineer opportunities for people to connect. Track your progress using engagement and connectedness surveys.

Spend time with your team members. Get to know them, and connect with them. Meet regularly – formally and informally. Listen carefully, focus your attention on the person you’re with and avoid distractions. Discuss work and non-work topics. Share your personal and career stories. Help them plan their careers, make progress on their goals and become better connectors themselves. Don’t micromanage. Support and serve your team members by giving them space to work their way. When possible, bring your team together to discuss their goals and mission, to gauge their progress and to celebrate their achievements.

To develop into a leader who helps others connect, take care of yourself first.

Deepen your connections with your family and friends, share vulnerabilities and worries, exercise, get enough sleep, eat well, spend time outdoors, nurture a creative hobby and substitute a good habit for a bad one.

“Sixty-two percent of employed Americans worked from home during the pandemic, and three in five indicated they would prefer to continue working remotely as much as possible once public health restrictions are lifted.”

Remote work will only expand, given COVID-19, employee preferences and evidence that it boosts productivity. Within that framework, meaningfully connect off-site workers to one another and to you and the company. Leaders on any level can change their micro-culture to create a more connected team. Fortunately, the new generation of workers may help reverse the trend toward isolation. In surveys, they prioritize their need for connectivity above all else. 

About the Author

Michael Lee Stallard is the co-founder and president of the leadership training and coaching firms E Pluribus Partners and Connection Culture Group.Contributors: Todd W. Hall teaches psychology at Biola University. Jason Pankau is a lecturer. Katharine P. Stallard is a partner in the Connection Culture Group.

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    J. C. 6 months ago
    its only sounds good when u listen but very hard to apply on the work.i have seen it with these two nacked eyes.
  • Avatar
    K. K. 9 months ago
    Connection culture is very important to improve people health, happiness & resilience.
  • Avatar
    M. H. 2 years ago
    All the five summaries including this are very useful ! I want to say thanks more!

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