Improving Productivity with Strong Personal Connections

Posted 23 November 2020 / 3 minutes read time

Jeff Leitner: It might be a weird time to bring it up, as we’re in the midst of a pandemic, but a former U.S. Surgeon General says that loneliness is a public health crisis. Or maybe it’s a perfect time to bring it up, as so many of us are working from home or not working at all. Experts have found that personal connections in the workplace can improve productivity.

“Most people go to work wanting to enjoy their relationships with the people they’re working with, wanting to feel like they are contributing to something meaningful in the world. But that is not the experience many people have,” Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy told The Washington Post.

“Many people feel that the folks they’re working with are work colleagues, but they wouldn’t call them friends. They wouldn’t describe them as people they can trust. And there’s a real lost opportunity there, because when people have strong connections with the people they’re working with that can not only improve productivity and the overall state of the company, but it can also improve their own health.

I’m not qualified to talk about health, but I’m struck by what he said about productivity. It appears Dr. Murthy might endorse social cohesion as the new north star for our organizations, as it’s a key to productivity, performance, motivation, engagement, learning, and dealing with stress.

Over the previous posts, I’ve introduced the first three critical dimensions of social cohesion: fairness, authenticity, and partnerships. The fourth and final dimension is belonging, which is the degree to which employees feel accepted and supported. Here are its critical elements:

  • Collective Interests: Are employees chasing the same goals or is everybody running their own race?
  • Validation and Affirmation: Does your organization signal to employees that they’re important to what you’re doing or just pay lip service to the idea?
  • Valuing the Group: Does your organization treat its own better than outsiders?
  • Encouragement of Employees’ Whole Selves: Can employees be themselves in your organization or are they discouraged from bringing that into work?
  • Encouragement of Professional Growth: Does your organization push employees to maximize their professional potential or just use people to do what needs doing?
  • Encouragement of Personal Integrity: Does your organization allow employees to be true to their values or expect them to swallow their concerns?

Big, bold declarations from leadership — either captured in formal policies or promised at company meetings — don’t tell you much about how an organization really works. Too many organizations have tried to use shortcuts like mission statements to transform themselves in employee paradises, where everyone is fulfilled and happy to be there. Of course, that never works. You need only surface a few unwritten rules to discover that people feel like they don’t belong, like:

  • Don’t stick your neck out.
  • If the boss wants to gossip about people in the office, do it.
  • If you use all of your paid time off, you’re not serious about your career.
  • Never say what’s really on your mind.

Solving this problem — the employees’ sense that they don’t belong — is hard. It requires dialing up the other dimensions I’ve talked about: fairness, authenticity, and partnership. But in the meantime, there is something you can do. Identify something the organization is doing to signal that employees aren’t important and stop it.

There are hundreds of these things, such as celebrating people who don’t take time off, pitting one group of employees against another, raving about another organization’s employees, and taking employees’ contributions for granted. If this sounds like being a good parent, it should. The sense of belonging is an intensely personal feeling — maybe the most personal feeling — and should be addressed with care.

Jan Johnson: Our workplaces can enhance belonging. Environmental psychology tells us that encouraging teams to exercise “ownership” or spatial identity over their neighborhood — perhaps by displaying artifacts that represent their interests or work-in-progress — is highly correlated to performance.

That means we designers can’t be precious about our designs; these aren’t our environments and we can’t insist they stay pristine. Teams and whole organizations should use the spaces the way they need to. Take your photos before move-in and then enjoy watching those spaces come to life.

Individuals also benefit from personalizing their spaces, even if that means Star Wars memorabilia or cat memes, because it lets them bring their whole selves to work — which in turn, helps them build rapport, and feel they belong. Brene Brown says it beautifully, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

Now if you haven’t done it already, it’s time to take Jeff’s assessment to evaluate social cohesion on your team or in your organization here.

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