Writing a book with my sister on the importance of ‘connection’ and relationships was not as straightforward as we originally expected it to be. Despite being each other’s only siblings, and both being psychologists, there were hurdles to overcome—and this is perhaps the central message of our book, Connect, that will be published in September this year.
Some of these hurdles were simple enough to define—she lives in Alaska, I live in the UK; I am an organizational psychologist, she is a clinical one—these things create scheduling issues and different perspectives which can hamper collaboration; but it was perhaps the subtler, less obvious issues that needed to be worked through more closely. The older-younger sibling issue, and the respect we give each other’s work as a result of the specific Connector types we display and the behaviours that those bring.
These contexts make collaboration a rich yet difficult space in which to create value. The differences in perspective bring diversity and can be catalytically creative, but they clearly also bring tension and sometimes disharmony. For siblings the stakes are potentially higher—the possibility of creating permanent rupture with your only sibling is a high price to pay, but the opportunity to allow that creative tension to foster something excellent and still be able to come back from it, is equally present. For Tami and me, the risk has been worth the journey and our relationship is stronger after this journey than it was before we started.
In organizations these dynamics are likely to be more muted, but nonetheless present—and the standard culture that businesses operate, especially larger organizations, is one where the personal contexts and backstories of people are often seen as irrelevant and ignored. Employees are there to do a job, and their personal preferences and biases should not get in the way of that being accomplished. This, of course, is all well and good in theory—but as Yogi Berra, the American Football coach and would-be sage noted, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Everybody is a construct of their emotions, and we struggle to separate our behaviours from the neurochemical impulses that instruct those emotions.
There are ways we can learn to better manage these impulses, and with practice become more disciplined and adept at connecting with those we need to work with, without totally suppressing our humanity. There is a key concept here—as technology becomes ever more sophisticated and AI/machine-learning takes on more complex tasks, it is the creative tension of humanity that will be where people’s real value lies, so suppressing that to automaton-like responses with co-workers will negate the value opportunity being sought. We need to find a balance between our human intuitions, biases, personalities—that is our authentic selves—and being able to work collaboratively and harmoniously with a diverse group of people.
The Four Types of Connector
In the book we create a short assessment that allows the reader to self-assess themselves into one of four broad types of Connector: the Innovator, the Director, the Facilitator and the Specialist. Each has specific actions and issues that will be red rags for them, quickly infuriating them and causing ruptures. For instance, Innovators are likely to be highly stressed by people ignoring their ideas, while Directors will struggle to find time to reflect and explore new ideas. Facilitators will be challenged by environments of conflict and a disregard for emotions and feelings, meanwhile Specialists will be very focussed on the problem and less comfortable in the dynamics of solving it – this article will likely baffle them! In each instance there is a resolution available, but it requires the other party to understand the ‘type’ they are dealing with and react appropriately.
The RESOLVE Tool
We present a seven-step tool for resolving stressful situations and addressing conflict: RESOLVE. The first step is the fundamental initial step of all good leadership, and that is to understand that there is a potential issue to be dealt with here, so Realize reality. Then Establish clear boundaries, negotiate with clarity and confidence to highlight what is important to you and where red lines lie. Seek support, life will be difficult if you are fighting your corner alone. Own your part, acknowledge your strengths and your shortcomings that you (your type) bring. Listen, increasingly this is understood to be the golden key to all relational challenges. Validate, ensure the other party knows you have heard them, and that it is clear that you agree (when you do). Evolve, the iteration element, get better at this process and know when to act.
We live in a world where technology enables levels of connectivity that could not have been dreamt of a generation ago—and yet statistics show we are seeing increasing levels of loneliness. Zenger and Folkman in the HBR article in 2014 highlight the disengagement experienced by those in the middle of the action in large organizations. Couple this with the CNN 2018 report that highlighted the loneliness many people feel in the workplace, even when (or rather, precisely when) they are surrounded by co-workers. This report suggests that the connecting technology is part of the problem. Having 500+ LinkedIn contacts and 2000 Facebook friends rarely translates into more human interactions, and inevitably leads us to compare our stats to those we interact with.
Better connections in the workplace, using our model and approach, can help to reverse this phenomenon. Organizations need to realize that the strength of relationships and connectivity people have at work can have a direct positive correlation with their productivity and happiness at work. While some 70% of output is task related, that still leaves 30% factored by relationships, and leaders have a role in creating the conditions for this to flourish. Building emotional connections takes courage, it does not mean advocating lots of ‘touchy-feely’ emotive interactions, but it does require building psychologically safe environments founded on mutual trust.