Mar 8, 2022

Connecting in a disconnected world

We are in the midst of another period of uncertainty and standing on the precipice of the unknown. Our brains are frazzled with different threats, priorities, scenarios. We are tired, troubled, distracted. And when we are worried, we think negatively and we are unable to do our best thinking which, in turn, impacts our behaviours, actions and results. How can we do our best, most creative and courageous thinking and ensure we remain connected and get things done, when our brains are distracted and pre-set to negative? 
It’s now two years and three UK lockdowns since I wrote my article Navigating the leadership challenge in these unprecedented times. Two years on and here we are again in unprecedented times, as we emerge from global pandemic to UK endemic and we’re seeing war in Europe, a humanitarian crisis and potential nuclear warfare.
The pressure on leaders is intensifying once again. While CEOs and CFOs urgently look at where their money is invested, complications within the supply chain and impact on costs and profit, business leaders need to once again step up and lead their people through more complexity and more uncertainty.
The world seemingly wants division – whether through Brexit, pandemic or war. But there’s no performance benefit in being a divided and disconnected workplace. We need to remember that we are all connected. And it’s the strength of connection and the power of the collective that will see us through.

Leaders, no matter how frazzled you feel, try my three tips for supporting your people to feel connected in these uncertain times.

1.     Connect

In a world that feels divided, meaningful connection matters. We have an absolute basic human need to be connected.
Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued. The disconnection dilemma comes when people are feeling social rejection, social exclusion or social isolation. When the disconnection isn’t addressed, people lose touch with their own feelings and emotions. They disconnect from others, and themselves.
In her latest book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, author Brené Brown describes the 87 emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human and maps out the skills that are key to understanding empathy and meaningful connection. Her research-based framework shows that naming an emotion or experience enables you to truly understand it and how it relates to other emotions and experiences, giving us the power of understanding, meaning and choice.
Brown suggests that when we feel lost or experience invisibility or loneliness, the anchor we’re really searching for is belonging and connection. She also talks about “belonging uncertainty”, where questioning our social belongingness can have a negative impact on our achievement potential.

“True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

Brené Brown

The pandemic has already exacerbated loneliness and disconnection. People are thinking about fitting in and being accepted, rather than belonging. Right now, don’t we all need to feel that we belong? It’s time for us to instil that feeling of belonging in the workplace, for people to derive sustenance from their relationships and create or even recreate those connections. 
“Connect then lead”
American psychologist, author and speaker Amy Cuddy believes leaders must firstly connect, then lead, but you can’t lead and truly connect with people without trust. Leaders who establish strength before trust run the risk of generating fear, in turn undermining cognitive potential, creativity and problem-solving, causing disengagement and disconnection. 
Trust is imperative. At a time when trust in governments and media is at an all-time low and disinformation misleads and manipulates, people are once again looking for their leaders to step up.
Connect despite the distrust
With governments and certain media outlets fuelling a cycle of disinformation, distrust and division for commercial and political gain, businesses and leaders need to work hard to build trust and connection.
The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that, “Societal leadership is now a core function of business.” The findings reveal that business is still the only trusted institution, with 61 per cent of respondents saying business is the most trusted institution, ahead of NGOs at 59 per cent, government at 52 per cent and media at only 50 percent. With 77 per cent of respondents trusting their employer, the relationship between employer and employee takes on a new level of meaning.
Distrust has become society’s default emotion. Employees and stakeholders are holding business accountable and expecting organisations to speak up, step up and do the right thing. How can leaders break the cycle of distrust and help people to build stronger trust in this divided world?
Leaders can build trust by demonstrating clarity of purpose, trust and connection. Purpose and connectivity help give meaning and momentum to some of the complex challenges we face.

2.     Communicate

In today’s lonely workplace, it’s about connecting people with people, with leaders and with the organisation. And communication is essential for meaningful connection. But communication for clarity, not confusion. Poor communication is anxiety-causing, and no one needs more anxiety in this uncertain world.
Erica Dhawan, the author and thought leader on 21st century collaboration, talks about using digital communication to build trust and connection and how misunderstanding digital body language leads to disconnection. Non-verbal cues and ‘silent language’ such as eye contact, smiles, tone, pauses, posture and proximity, make up three-quarters of face-to-face communication. In digital communication, many of these elements are reduced or missing.
There’s also less chat during virtual meetings, especially when leaders are present. In a digital world, chatting is even more important. It enables people to be human, to feel energised and connect as humans. So, lean in, make eye contact and get personal.
Get the message
With 306 billion emails exchanged each day, the average person sends 30 and receives 96. And according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the tone of our emails is misinterpreted 50 per cent of the time.

“Reading carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy.”

Erica Dhawan

There are also cultural and generational differences in communication at play, so whether you’re a digital native or digital adapter. If you’ve grown up texting, then email is seen as slower and more formal and a phone call can make you anxious. If you’ve grown up adapting to digital communications, then emails are seen as casual conversations and phone calls are enjoyable.
As leaders, the media you choose shows people how much you prioritise the conversation. Whether email, text, Zoom, WhatsApp or making phone calls, each has its own underlying interpretation and potential for misunderstandings.
Get personal
Don’t underestimate the power of personal connection – the impact of you as leader (being the big boss) being personally present and making the time to reach out, spend time and connect with your people.
Make it more personal and less transactional. Less brevity, more phone calls, more personalised emails. And more meeting in person – research shows that what we miss most are spontaneous social interactions. Take time to support, listen and think. Take time to connect. In an epidemic of workplace loneliness and disconnection, let’s connect in a way that matters.
According to the French philosopher Simone Weil, attention is the finest and purest form of generosity. So if you are going to be compassionate, be generous. Generous with your time and attention to others. And remember to delegate, make human connection part of everyone’s job.

Let’s also make it fun. Creativity, humour and keeping it authentic and real can lead to greater connection. In their 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. Connection – like humour – can be contagious.

3.     Coach

To successfully navigate your people through uncertainty and ensure your people feel seen, heard, valued and connected, a coaching mindset is key. Leaders need to be in full coaching mode; support your people, listen to them, listen whilst noting the words of Nancy Kline, best selling author of Time to Think, that "competitive listening is an oxymoron". 
Give your people your attention, the time to think for themselves and time to connect with others to help them try to make meaning of it all and be resilient and resourceful.
Leaders, you don't need to go it alone. Connect with a coach, a thinking partner, a mentor, change buddy or, as one of my clients calls it, a chaos buddy, and navigate this leadership challenge together.
And finally, be realistic. Remember the wisdom of Dr Stephen Covey and his work on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  where habit No 1 is Be Proactive:

“Focus and act on what you can control and influence instead of what you can’t.”

In these uncertain times, people are feeling anxious, helpless and distracted. If we focus on the areas within our control, this will empower us to think differently, take better actions and achieve better results.
Leadership is all about relationships and connection whilst navigating the difficulties of this complex and disconnected world.

As leaders, how are you connecting, communicating and coaching your people so that they hear you, loud and clear, echoing Brene Brown and her message “Be here. Be you. Belong.”?