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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7 Ways Leaders Exclude People on Their Team


Long back in my career as I took on the responsibility of being a team leader, I thought I was on a good path. My intentions were above board and all I wanted was for my team to progress and shine. In that spirit, I called our first team meeting and set about sharing something really cool and new with my brand new team. Their reaction, which was mostly silence, told me that I was the only one who was excited. The ones who would execute the new plans weren't the least bit curious or enthusiastic. I was new to them and vice versa, I had got to a good start I thought, but I hadn't obviously.

I stepped back and thought over my interaction with my team thus far. I had missed something for sure. Over time, as I went about addressing major and minor concerns and reasons for their disengagement, I realised how easy it is to both include and alienate our team through actions that we don't even think about as important. This happens swiftly and stays with the person until we realise what's happening and address it.

Wouldn't it be great to not fall into these traps as much as possible, so there is less apologising and less time spent in disentangling relationships when we could have been enjoying them instead?

Inclusive Leaders don't expend more energy on connecting with their team than do ordinary leaders who end up excluding their team.

Small acts of neglect and disinterest over time entrench the team in a culture that says, we don't really care about you, but we need you to work hard and show results. Do leaders who exclude their teams have bad intentions? Probably not. Though most of them don't realise that their behaviour has far-reaching effects on the team, one way or another.

Related Article: 5 Reasons Inclusion Refuses to be Part of Your Team Culture

Here are 7 behaviours you can watch out for that might be excluding and alienating your team, and saying to them that you don't really care.

#1 Neglect to say hello in the morning

If you have a team that sits around you or is likely to bump into you, then do make it a point to say hello when you see them for the first time during the day. Instead of starting a work conversation the moment you lay eyes on them, smile and say hello first. Maybe, the team member was saying good morning, and you went right over that and landed in the thick of an update. We don't just throw people when we neglect to greet them properly, but tell them that they aren't really people, just things that get stuff done.

#2 Use appreciation as a tactic

Appreciation is a powerful non-monetary reward and a motivator for many of us. We might not be as pumped with a salary hike as with an email of appreciation that is marked to senior leaders in the team. Appreciation matters, but when we remember to appreciate people only when giving them more work, asking them a favour or when the person is threatening to quit, we are beating the purpose of the compliment. Not just did we fail to genuinely appreciate the team member, they most likely think we are using them to get what we want. Manipulation is a sure shot way of exclusion. Appreciation is not a tactic, it's a time-sensitive tool for engagement and motivation.

#3 Fail to make eye contact

Ever had a boss who would invariably be distracted when you were speaking to them? Several of us might find this hugely annoying when we want to have a chat with our leader, but they insist on making eye contact with their laptop or phone while we struggle to get their attention. Not everyone is comfortable with eye contact at close quarters. Yet, leaders need to practice it and get comfortable because the eyes are the windows to our soul, after all. If we aren't looking at the person, then we are likely not listening either, and therefore, not that interested in their career. And a team member who's career is not your priority will soon be on their way out.

#4 Ignore the team in subtle ways

You are having a team meeting, but you end up talking to one or two people you are closest to, who've won your trust and do most of the work. The rest of the team is not sure why they are there and if you even care they are listening. While it's a team meeting, they know that it really isn't. Most team members feel ignored and begin to suspect if it's such a good idea to be somewhere they are clearly not valued or spoken to directly. You may have less time on your hands, but it takes literally fractions of a second to pan the room or call your virtual team member by their name to let them know you acknowledge their presence and that they matter to you.

#5 You spend most of your time with your boss

You have a team, but you also have a leader you report in to. They are likely giving you chunks of work and discussing important actions. That's great, and the more clarity you have from your own leader, the more clarity you can give to your team. At the same time, you are bound to your team, not so much to your own boss. The more time you spend with that person, the less you spend with your team. Also, when teams watch their leader constantly be in meetings with their boss, they wonder what's going on and if they know everything. If your team ends up knocking on your bosses door just to get your attention, then you are probably spending too much time away from your them.

#6 Pretend to collaborate after taking a decision

I've been in meetings where my team leader had already decided the course of action, something that would affect our way of working and our timelines. Yet, they approached the meeting as if to take our inputs and decide the way ahead together. We all knew we were part of a mock meeting, more about saving face and posturing and much less about what we thought. Think how demotivating and deflating it would have been to be part of such a meeting. People don't appreciate being toyed with, none of us do. It's so much better to come clean and confide that you didn't have a choice in the matter and there were compelling reasons to have taken a decision without the team's participation. Most reasonable people would understand and focus on how best to navigate a tough situation and work together to make the best of it.

#7 Let the team take the blame

Nothing excludes faster than breaching trust. A team leader has the tough responsibility of having the buck stop at their desk. No matter how much the team may have messed up, you can't name them to your leaders and say, it wan't your fault, but so and so messed up. This may sound unusual, but happens far too frequently behind closed doors. The team member may never know they were singled out until it was too late and they bear the consequences of being told on. While the responsibility of the work is on a specific team member, the accountability of their success or failure is on the leader. This is a hard place to be, but without this, you can't cultivate commitment, engagement and the spirit of being a team. When we sacrifice someone we were meant to guide, we send a message loud and clear about our real intentions and the strength of our character.

You can act in tiny ways that tell people you care about them and that their presence makes a difference to you. When we do that, we are taking our leadership to the next level. Including a team doesn't take as much hard work or extra time, it's a question of awareness and intention instead.

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