Oct 21, 2020

Relationships and connections matter

Leadership is all about relationships. And relationships and human connection have never been so important.

We’ve seen sensational headlines; ‘two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months’, and in the UK, the NHS seeing ‘10 years of technological advancement in 10 days’. From remote team working and online learning to virtual customer service, even bigger data and real time reporting, the global pandemic has accelerated the replacement of human with technological interactions. 

But despite all the technological advancements, it still comes down to people. We want human connection. We need human connection. We thrive from human connection. We know from research that ‘affiliation’ - establishing and maintaining relationships - is one of the most important motivators of human behaviour.
There has been lots of talk recently about ‘the science’, but let’s not forget about the behavioural science. Early on in the pandemic, the Government was concerned about ‘behavioural fatigue’. Now, behavioural science has dropped off the agenda, trust in the Government has been eroded and we are indeed feeling fatigued. But let’s not forget that behavioural science underpins all human behaviour, including leadership behaviour.
In the initial throes of a pandemic, everyone pulled together and national pride was ignited. Supportive relationships and connections became the focus for all. Now, that focus is waning; less Zooms, less Whatsapp activity, less jokes in circulation. But human connection is essential now more than ever. And it’s human connection that will help people to stay engaged and keep going.
In my last article, ‘Six years, six leadership trends: Connection, disruption and accelerated change’, I talk about leadership being all about relationships. And about how connection has become increasingly fundamental in the current uncertain climate. Connection is about energy and the coming together of people who collaborate and derive strength, value and support from the relationship. It’s about achieving something together, doing something that matters, making a positive difference and having at least some fun right now. For me, relationships don’t fall into simple categories of personal or business; it’s not an either/or. Business involves personal connections, relationships don’t change significantly depending on the setting.
Since I established my leadership business six years ago, the importance of relationships has increased and it’s especially important in today’s disrupted and uncertain climate. What has happened to relationships in the last six years? And what has accelerated or changed in the last six months due to the coronavirus pandemic?
I have observed the following six trends in developing relationships and connections that matter:
1.     Make it creative
Even during this time of social distance and remote working, we can’t stay locked behind our walls - virtual or otherwise - waiting for a vaccine. By tapping our people agility, we can find safe and sometimes surprising ways to interact and relate to each other. Going beyond the constraints and restrictions of phone calls, Zoom and Teams, meeting responsibly outside the office walls and going old school with ‘walk & talk’ meetings can feel incredibly refreshing and re-energising.
By meeting in person in an acceptable and socially distanced way, you see the ‘who’ of somebody, rather than simply the ‘what’. It’s about having the time, space and interest in people in a different setting that’s conducive to building relationships. Whenever I interviewed people in my previous corporate life, I always met them in the lobby and brought them first into the office kitchen to get water or coffee. And today, it’s about me taking an MD of a property development company for a walk in London and admiring the bankside view from St Paul’s Cathedral to Canary Wharf, taking in the centuries of buildings and what a difference 500 years can make – and the enormity of what we now need to achieve in such a short timescale. Getting creative about connection provides a different perspective and fresh insight.
In familiar settings, being authentic, creating a connection and giving others a taste of who we are. But where most communication is through technology, social interaction, informal chat and empathy can be missing. The challenge is to be creative in achieving real connection in today’s socially distanced world. A recent Zoom meeting I attended, led by Nancy Kline of Time to Think, ended with all delegates holding up a flower to the camera in appreciation of the host; the host could suddenly see a screen of flowers instead of faces. Creativity, humour and keeping it authentic and real can lead to greater connection. In her book, ‘Humour, Seriously: Why Humour Is A Superpower At Work And In Life’, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas talk about using humour at work to keep it real.
2.     Harness remote working
Before the pandemic, remote working had struggled to establish much of a beachhead, as companies worried about its impact on productivity and corporate culture. And from a point of diversity and inclusion, it’s also important here to remember that not everyone can work remotely.
A study by McKinsey during the current pandemic found that across all industry sectors, 15 per cent of executives surveyed (and 20 percent of those in the UK) said at least one-tenth of their employees could work remotely two or more days a week going forward, almost double the 8 per cent of respondents who expressed that intention before Covid-19. However, extending remote working beyond two days a week was less popular, with just 7 per cent saying at least one-tenth of their employees could work three or more days a week remotely.

The potential for remote working is highly concentrated in a handful of sectors, such as information and technology, finance and insurance, and management. Some 34 per cent of respondents from the IT sector said they expect to have at least one-tenth of their employees working remotely for at least two days a week after Covid-19, compared with 22 per cent of executives surveyed before the pandemic. Most of the companies that have announced plans for greater remote working are from the technology or finance sectors, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. Alongside these tech giants I'm proud to include one of my clients, a UK Social Housing provider who has made the decision to offer remote working for all employees from now on.

There will be challenges in managing a workforce that is working part-remotely, part-in person. Companies will need to reconstruct how work is done, decide which employees and roles are best suited to remote working and reconfigure and rethink the workplace and culture, minimising any potential divide between those who can and those who can’t.
3.     Cultivate engagement and togetherness
We have no control over the current crisis, but leaders do have control over how they interact with their employees. And that’s important because organisations will only be able to navigate this crisis successfully if their employees are engaged.
Employee engagement has always been high on the agenda of business leaders. And in some ways, the pandemic has enhanced engagement. Many employees are experiencing a sense of togetherness; “We are all in this together”. Many employees are glad to still have jobs, teams are working better together and everyone is focused on protecting the business and customers. But a lot has changed in the workplace in a very short period of time, meaning people are more easily distracted and may be focused on priorities outside of work. Leaders need to ensure they show understanding, empathy, clarity and ensure workloads are fair and reasonable. One of the best ways to retain and motivate people is to listen - and listen to understand - and offer flexibility and home working, but people need relationships and connections to do this successfully.
The Effectory Covid-19 Workforce Pulse survey reveals that 75 per cent of employees are satisfied with the way that their organisation is handling the crisis and 71 per cent are confident in the future of the organisation (down from 76 per cent before the pandemic). 84 per cent of employees are able to work remotely but only 66 per cent feel they are able to do their jobs effectively from home.

So how do you keep employees engaged and connected through crisis and uncertainty?

  • Set long term goals that are clear, achievable and rewarding. Aligning organisational purpose with employee benefits will further boost engagement to deliver performance and change.
  • Give people the tools they need to work from home efficiently and safely. These tools can make your employees 63 per cent more productive, 61 per cent better able to support customers and 52 per cent better able to collaborate. Investing in digital channels and tools is key for boosting morale and productivity during challenging times.
  • Offer your people a sense of purpose - this will result in 49 per cent more confidence in the future of your organisation and a 42 per cent higher eNPS - the likelihood that your employees will recommend your organisation to people they know.
  • Invest in people development – equip people with the skills and capabilities they will require in the coming weeks and months, including access to online training through webinars and LinkedIn, to reduce the statistic that 25 per cent of employees will leave your organisation because they do not receive any training.
  • Strengthen connections between employees - by facilitating virtual coffees, lunches, quizzes or evening drinks, ensuring you continue these events as people return to the office to maintain engagement and ensure inclusion of those continuing to work from home. 

Engagement and wellbeing go hand in hand. In the current climate where risks to physical health and mental wellbeing are prevalent, leaders need to support their people, enhance wellbeing initiatives and create a sense of belonging. A sense of togetherness. In an inspiring message to customers and colleagues, Robbie Brozin, co-founder of Nando’s, stated, “It’s been called social distancing, but we like to think of it as social togetherness because we’re in this together.”
4.     Make it safe – the art of vulnerability
The Effectory Covid-19 Workforce Pulse survey reveals that only 67 per cent of employees currently feel ‘safe’. And the research from Google also reported that if a team feels safe, they do their best possible work.

Being there, being present, will make your people feel safe. Connection during crisis is a powerful leadership tool. Stay connected with your teams, peers and wider communities. Good relationships are about being interested, about being present, paying attention to what others think, what they feel as well as what they want to say.
Personalisation of communication adds to impact. No one message fits all. Speak to people in person, participate in your communities and create a sense of 'likeness'; when people are feeling unsafe and uncertain, they are most influenced by others 'like them'.

‘Charisma’ is often cited as important for leadership, but it’s hard to project charisma on a screen without seeming inauthentic. When leading through a crisis, vulnerability is essential. Without vulnerability, authenticity becomes impossible. Ken Blanchard, the management expert and co-author of The One Minute Manager, says that, “If you don’t know who you are - or what your strengths and weaknesses are - and you are unwilling to be vulnerable, you will never develop a trusting relationship.” Being authentic and vulnerable is essential to becoming charismatic. Showing vulnerability is essential to trust. People are drawn to those who are genuine, willing to show who they truly are and who make it safe for others to be fully themselves.

We are all getting used to new ways of working; go to work, don’t go to work, work remotely. It all feels strange right now and the future of work is looking very different. If we don’t invest in culture – the ‘how we work here’ – and climate – the ‘what it feels like to work here’, then we won’t get the results the organisation deserves and, ultimately, people deserve our very best efforts. Investing in relationships, communication and engagement will lead to world class in engagement, no mean feat in such challenging times.

5.     Make it real - human leadership
Leaders need to connect with their people on-screen, they need to bring clarity, optimism and energy to every video call. Working out how to engage and lead authentically through a screen is a newly-required leadership skill.

As Zoom, Teams and so many other iterations become the norm, we build relationships in our own personal spaces. But it’s hard to transcend ‘separateness’, no matter how good the technology. Emotion makes connection real. There are ways of projecting genuine warmth and joy; by being human.

Human leadership is about leaders that connect, leaders that have the courage to be human; helping people, serving people. Leaders who are human don’t put on an act. Like so many of us they are open about their flaws, insecurities, mistakes and fears. They make us feel human, because that’s what we are. 

Brene Brown says it best; “If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmoured, whole hearts – so that we can innovate, solve problems and serve people – we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard and respected.”

Closely linked to authenticity, empathy and compassion is trust. Trust is the foundation of all relationships. Edelman defines trust as ‘the inner glue that binds all human and business relationships together.' If employees can’t connect with their leaders, how can they trust them? Developing trust in leaders will lead to great work in extraordinary times.
Matthew Syed talks about “an invisible thread was created between people, a force field of trust that is the prerequisite for trade, investment and other boons to humanity.”
6.     Networking is critical for success
Relationships matter. As does having a rich and diverse network. Relationships help your leadership effectiveness and your career.
A research study into the lives of men in the US from 1940 onwards attempted to identify what made men – and latterly women – happy. Findings consistently suggest that happiness is linked to having relationships – whether in a relationship or with a rich network of relationships.
In the workplace, those who are agreeable and able to establish effective relationships get ahead. And, conversely, researchers at UC Berkeley found that those with disagreeable traits – those with selfish, combative, manipulative personalities – did not.
Mohandas Gandhi wrote, “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” For me, great leaders need gravitas. Gravitas increases your ability to persuade and influence and is likely to fuel the extent to which you rise in an organisation.
Remember that great networking is about being people-centred and being socially intelligent with your network, giving more than taking but also being clear you only have so much energy, you can’t give that energy to people who just suck the life out of you and don’t give back; life’s too short for that! Successful relationships are two way.  
In a recent podcast hosted by Squiggly Careers, Matthew Syed talks about people with broad and diverse networks having so much more success in their careers as they are more easily able to draw on a diverse set of people and insights. In a complex world, that capacity to build diverse networks often hinges on having a giving rather than taking attitude. Ultimately, people who are kind and socially intelligent will win.
In my previous article, ‘Is it time to start thinking differently about networking?’, I advise leaders to work out who your trusted advisors are, who challenges you and who thinks differently? To be inclusive and not live in a bubble of likeness and sameness. And to bring best practice into your business and gain the benefits of having a diverse range of people with different thoughts, experiences and expertise. 
Finding a mentor or coach who is going to help you to grow and develop an extensive network will make your journey quicker and easier - both internally and externally. As an Executive Coach, I’m often a change agent for my clients introducing them to other leaders who have similar issues or could offer great insight into a situation. For me, it’s about enabling easier access to high quality, proven expertise.
I asked one of my most valued associates and an expert in leadership assessment, about the relationship trends she has observed over the last six years.

Helen Sweeney, Helen Sweeney HR Consultancy
Human Resources Consultant, professional in assessing and developing Senior Leaders, Executives and Boards and driving Climate Initiatives in organisations:

“Throughout my career in industry and now consultancy, I’ve consistently deployed  psychometric assessment for recruiting and developing leaders. Psychometrics give important information about an individual that isn’t outwardly apparent; like a shortcut to building an accurate picture of an individual’s leadership style and approach. Introversion and extraversion may be more obvious, but the way an individual problem-solves or influences is more subtle. Using psychometrics can identify key traits that will unlock relationships and will help an individual or a new leadership team to work well together, quickly and effectively. 

With the current shift towards working remotely, it may prove difficult to onboard a new leader due to busy diaries, back to back Zoom meetings, less opportunities for informal chat and less tendency to pick up the phone. Virtual working brings a concentrated focus on the transactional elements of leadership and leaders need to ensure that focusing on relationships isn’t disregarded as a nice-to-have in the current climate. Relationships are critical to riding the current storm and for longer term progression.

Credible leaders need great functional skills and great relational skills. Two key influencing competencies for building effective relationships are ‘interpersonal awareness’ and ‘concern for impact’. Interpersonal awareness (IPA) is the ability to accurately judge other people’s emotions, intentions, traits and truthfulness. Concern for impact enables a person to communicate in the style that another person prefers. Both competencies are essential for leaders.

Successful leaders have valuable networks that not only can help build their profile, but more importantly can give access to different thinking and expertise. But strategic networking at a senior level requires authenticity; a genuine curiosity and passion for understanding others and gaining a different perspective, rather than purely for personal advancement.

Without developing effective relationship skills, careers derail. Whilst virtual working and building relationships through telephone calls or Zoom may hinder a leader’s ability to apply relationship skills, now more than ever, relationship building should be seen as an investment; it’s not a luxury, it’s key to leadership success.” 

In summary
Jacob Morgan’s work on leaders as lighthouses has increasing significance as we continue to surge headlong into this economic, social and personal crisis. He talks about leaders guiding their people to safety, helping them find their way back home, and helping to make sure they stay away from rocks or cliffs that might crush their ships.
Relationships and connection matter more now than ever. Whilst none of us can pretend to have a universal panacea, for leaders that connect, the message is clear.  Be present, be visible, be involved; be there for your people. Show empathy, compassion and that you care. Show them you are all in this together. Connection is contagious.