Do We Have a Crisis of Connection?

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I was lucky to land a couple of passes to the movie, Ali’s Wedding, recently – it is a fun and moving love story set in Australia against the backdrop of the Iraqi immigrant community. While I really enjoyed the movie, this is about what happened before and after it. For me, that is even more significant than the message in the movie (btw, do watch it if you can).

I got the movie passes not because I am ‘well-connected", but because I share a sense of mutual affection and connectedness with a volunteering organisation who thought this was a great way to tell me they valued what I do. So, off I went with my husband to make good use of them, and as we entered the multiplex and started walking towards where all the screens were, we met the usher who was checking tickets. He was a young, well-dressed and cheerful man, he looked up at us and greeted us warmly, smiled brightly, wished us a great night and hoped we enjoy our movie. It was one of those moments when you meet an employee who loves to do what they do, not because they are paid to do it, but because they want to.

That brief exchange did something for me – it made me feel included as his customer. I felt compelled to stop on way out and tell him that we did have a great night and enjoyed the movie just as he had wished for us. His face lit up, he looked delighted and mildly surprised, even. For me, this was a social experiment of sorts.

It doesn’t matter if the person is a stranger and we don’t know their name, when we reciprocate connection, we feel connected and included. Inclusion doesn't depend on familiarity & connection doesn't take time.

The fact that this exchange stood out for me also tells me that people sincerely meaning what they say is not as common as we might think. More people feel disconnected, lonely, misunderstood and excluded in our world than any other time in history, perhaps.

A reflection of that reality is that close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. Many more attempt suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally. We call that age-group our future.

All is not well with our world, even if the person sitting next to us is keeping it together for a few hours, and doesn’t let on if they need help or are craving for a real conversation with a real person. A conversation that tells them they are accepted the way they are, they are valued and that their life matters to us.

It might help us to know that connection is not a function of time or money it’s a function of intention. It barely took a few seconds to have the exchange I described above with the usher at the multiplex. I hope our chat made him feel meaningful in his work and as a professional, and that what he did made a difference to me. Connection is not time consuming, relationships take time though, and all good relationships are built on the solid foundation of moments invested in connecting and reciprocating connection. That takes intention and over time, we form a great relationship - one person at a time.

So, let's examine how we choose to spread the message of inclusion and diversity today across organisations. We continue to address large numbers of people at one time, urging them to be inclusive. We do this because we've built a big employee base, we desire scale, we want to speak to an unimaginable number of people scattered around the globe, we want efficiency, we want to economise and save time, so we gather people in a room and over video conferences, and tell them why respecting diversity and being inclusive is important, that we need their cooperation and action in fulfilling the organisation’s mission in being a diverse organisation that respects individuals. You see how this is a disconnect?

To genuinely include someone and begin to connect with them is a one-on-one action that inspires others to come forward and be themselves. We can inspire a group of people or even a large crowd, but we connect one-on-one. We didn’t form our best friendships in groups, we met people who became our best friends in a group, perhaps, but our relationship with them grew between the two of us. The most productive leader-team member relationships were built one-on-one.

Let's reverse the order, so we reflect the process of human connection correctly. It's inclusion first and then diversity, not the other way round.

We don’t persuade individuals to take individual action through talking to them as a mass of people whose names we can’t tell if anyone put us on the spot. Individual change takes intentional individual action. That doesn’t happen through mandatory and impersonal training programs. That happens through great leadership of individuals.

We have a growing crisis of connection - a crisis where an unprecedented number of people don't feel they belong, they are needed or valued. Test it yourself. Feel the organisational climate of where you work, observe the amount of tolerance people have for a differing points of view or opinions. Watch how the more contentious the topic, the more telling if inclusion has succeeded at your workplace or not. You got your organisational climate survey results right there in front of you.

As leaders, and those responsible for ourselves and our teams, let’s help our people be accountable for their behaviour by talking about issues that are divisive. Sweeping contentious topics under the rug or doing an unconscious bias training is not helpful anymore, there is too much that divides us. Forces beyond our control fuel the narrative that goes against all tenets of inclusion and diversity. So what can bring us together? The narrative might not be in our control, but the conversation is. Let’s begin with a chat, let’s talk about how we feel about our differences. Not how the whole organisation and the country feels about it, how do we feel about it as a team, as a group of people who spend a better part of our days with each other and work towards a goal larger than any of us. Let’s talk about it, let’s not stay silent in the hope that our divisiveness will correct itself, it won’t. Silence rarely does that. Unless we do this, diversity won't stick and won't matter in the long-run.

Let me know what you think, would love to hear back and hear your experiences.

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