6 Jul, 2022
By Arianna Mason
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
― Dr. Brené Brown
Recently at Fresh Hope Communities we have been speaking a lot about kindness and connection. Connection and kindness at face value may seem to some like a cheesy and unproductive thing to be speaking about at work. After all, aren’t we here to “do our jobs” not to “make friends”? While a healthy boundary between work and life is important, it does not have to come at the expense of kindness. Furthermore, scientific studies of the nervous system are showing that kindness and connection in the workplace are not just valuable for social input, but also workplace productivity.
In ‘Project Aristotle’ Google Teams spent millions of dollars and hundreds of hours researching what was the differentiating factor for the best, most productive teams. What they found is that the presence of psychological safety is the number one quality of a high-performing team. When this is present restrictive group think is reduced, constructive conflict is no longer avoided; the team’s collective emotional intelligence is increased and optimal ‘flow’ in our work is achieved.
Similarly, a recent Gallup research project demonstrated that only two out of 10 U.S. employees strongly agree to have a best friend at work, and this directly impacted the number of safety incidents, engaged customers and profit margins. Bottom line: When there’s belonging there’s engagement, and when there’s engagement there’s productivity.
This is because research shows we are neurologically drawn to environments that are safe and that provide connection and certainty. Our inherent flight, fight or freeze survival mechanism can prove tricky in times of change and unpredictability. In the workplace, this can manifest during transitional periods whether that be in the form of a new team member or a deliverable goalpost moving unexpectedly. When this happens, we neurologically react and revert to what is known as the survival brain. When we interact with each other in this survival state our brain subconsciously files away data from each interaction. Depending on the state we are in these interactions can release oxytocin (the bonding chemical) that helps us better connect with other people or they have an adverse reaction that can deactivate important thinking parts of the brain.
To intentionally override these subconscious patterns and to make sure that we are not un-wittingly focusing our energies on survival with a limited perspective of what’s possible, we need to ensure that our basic needs are being met. Abraham Maslow taught this in his Hierarchy of Needs, discovering we can’t concern ourselves with higher goals of creativity and production until we have our needs of safety, connection and meaning met. In other words, connecting with others and ensuring we feel safe is essential before we can ask co-workers to start to be creative or to work towards more productive solutions. We need to create psychological safety for each other to make sure we aren’t de-activating our thinking brain.
The good news is that when these basic needs for safety, connection and meaning are met, the magic happens! The right environment of connection and safety naturally rewards the optimal behaviours that encourage sharing of ideas and information, accountability, and excitement about the future. It naturally reduces people’s tendency to exhibit defensive and negative behaviours when they’re uncertain. It restricts self-absorption, self-sabotage and a lack of self-awareness that reduces team trust.
Creating connection, trust, and safety—though tricky at times of change or uncertainty—can happen when everyONE takes responsibility for it. Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last, suggests this is what makes a great leader: someone who takes ownership of making their employees feel safe, and who intentionally draws people into a circle of trust. It is not an accidental state – high performing and trusting teams take work.
Two practical ways to ensure safety within our teams identified by Google’s Project Aristotle include:
Over 90,000 hours of our life will be spent at work. That’s one-third of our lives doing emails, attending meetings, and ticking off the to-do list. That’s also one-third of our lives spent with our colleagues—so why not make it meaningful, instead of mundane? It’s widely accepted that meaningful connections in the workplace are fundamental to both reducing team member stress and improving operational outcomes. Sure, what we do at work matters, but how we do it and who we do it alongside matters even more.
Arianna Mason is the GM for People, Culture & Strategy