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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Why Successful Women End up on the Wrong Side of Likability


A woman colleague of mine came up to me once, and hesitatingly shared how one of her team members said that I was really good at what I did, but was also a bit shrewd. This comment came from another woman, so no surprises there. And I don’t particularly want to dwell on why my colleague thought it was a good idea to bring it up with me. I was caught off guard. I knew it wasn’t possible for everyone to like us, but I didn’t necessarily enter office every day to battle sexism from one of my own gender. I said something that was mildly defiant. For the most part, I felt upset about being dumped in the ‘she’s-excellent so-must-be-scheming’ bucket.

Since then, I’ve thankfully met many more women who find in themselves the capacity to enjoy their own and other women’s successes. I now surround myself with them, and build them up in turn. It’s a heady, virtuous cycle that has proven to me that we are capable of calling out our own biases and being better people and better professionals.

Coming back to my story from long ago, I remember saying how I didn’t consider ‘shrewd’ a bad word, and I was okay with being smart about dealing with whatever came at me on a daily basis. Not the best response, but that was my impromptu defiance. In hindsight, I felt more surprised than rebellious.

Most of us know this by now, and if we don't, then several research outcomes point to our bias that considers successful men to be intelligent, smart and competent. Whereas, women who rock at work are considered most likely scheming, bossy and a bit too smart for their own good; competent yes, but shrewd for the most part. In my observation over the years, powerful men who bred fear at work, and weren't the best leaders around, were held in appreciative awe. Even they generally did better than us on being liked. Unfortunately, not just men, but women negatively correlate success and likability about other women.

Related article: When one of us loses out, we all lose out, and what to do about it

What doesn’t help is that conscious beliefs about fairness, good judgement and objectivity can coexist with unconscious & biased ones without our realisation, at times. 

This bit of interesting info didn’t provide me much solace back then. I resented hearing what I heard, but I was even more perturbed that I was perhaps paying the price for being a competent, professional woman. I brooded about the possibility of being respected, considered competent and successful, over being nice and likable. Uncomfortable as I was, I did give it a think. Was I really doing something that I needed to set right? Was I unintentionally betraying my tribe in ways that tilted the balance of rewards in my direction, but tossed shame and embarrassment their way?

So what was I doing to have drawn this judgement? I thought about how I never competed with anyone else, I still don’t. I worked for the sake of doing great work and to feel excited about it. Work continues to be a personal and emotional experience for me. I shared our combined success and celebrated with the team. I protected and pushed them. I was gregarious, but also very single minded about goals that had my name on them. I was approachable, yet knew when to keep my distance, but felt deeply about another’s pain on important issues and when someone needed me. I could be counted on for calling out unfairness and bad ideas when most others were hell bent on agreeing with the boss or keeping silent. And I knew how to lead others and myself on most occasions. So yeah, that could be construed as shrewd, I guess. It could also mean I was in the right place, doing the right thing, because I knew how to.

My success wasn't at the expense of others, on the contrary, it was with them. I had finally found comfort and reassurance.

To decide to dislike and doubt a woman who is successful and powerful is not a sound judgment most times. It’s the unfortunate outcome of unconscious biases. We most likely mask bias under our assumed competence to make considered decisions based on instinct & how good we are at sizing others up. I include myself in being susceptible to this gender bias, so I remain alert to my own conditioning of who women can become or not.

Even the very educated, well travelled and enlightened amongst us are not completely immune to seeing women through a lens smudged with centuries of perceptions and beliefs about our (supposed) place in society. Such value judgments are far from what sound decisions are made up of. For that, we would need to wipe our lens, and that takes awareness, courage and willingness. We never know what we might see and how it may change us.

I decided that I would do what I could to call out bias, but more than that, I wouldn’t let it derail me from what I loved to do and how I did it. And neither should anyone out there who is called unpleasant names because you are so good at what you do that your success sparkles. It demands a response, and we don’t always get the one we would have chosen for someone like us. It’s not all right, so I won’t say that sexism, weather from our own gender or another, is okay. So, call out bias when you can, and gently turn others around to see how their ‘on-the-go’ judgements affect both of us in unproductive ways.

Each slight, every unfair judgement, knocks us down a bit further on a tough path women walk each day.

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To women, I would say, think hard before we bring down one of our own. We get precious moments to build each other up, give the benefit of the doubt, and ask questions when we can’t understand or don’t want to. But let’s not assume that likability and standout success is an either-or choice for any of us.

There’s ‘and’ there, and it’s up to us to keep it firmly between our success and likability. Everyone loses, even men, when we compel each other to choose between being powerful and successful and being nice.

And maybe, we need to question ourselves as women before we question anyone else, on why we aren’t where we needed to be in this world, in this decade and the next.

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