How social connections can inform your leadership ability

High-quality social connections aren’t just a predictor of happiness, they can also help people flourish at work and develop their leadership ability, say the authors of Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership

The new currency of the Internet Age and the IoE (internet of everything) is not intellectual capital; it is social capital – the collective value of the people you know and what you will do for each other.

When social connections are strong and numerous, there’s more trust, reciprocity, information flow, collective action, and elevated wellbeing. Having strong social relationships is the best predictor of human happiness, trumping wealth, income and material possessions; and research has shown that those who fail to achieve this most basic need experience loneliness, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, obesity, and anger.

You need to find ways to get connected to the information, resources and influence you will need to make a difference. In doing so, figure out substantive ways to connect your colleagues with one another and with those outside the boundary of your group or team who are part of other key networks.

The importance of social connections has been dramatically illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic. While nearly everyone around the world was ordered to maintain ‘physical distance’, the yearning for social connection increased. People invented all kinds of ways to continue to interact with their fellow human beings. Virtual coffee breaks and cocktail hours popped up immediately after people had to shelter in their homes. Residents stood on their balconies and sang to each other. Friends and family organised drive-by birthday and graduation celebrations. The demand for virtual gathering services nearly broke the internet. There was seemingly no end to the creative ways that people invented to stay connected to each other, even in the worst of the crisis.

Strengthening the bonds of connectedness

The most well-connected individuals are typically those who are involved in activities outside their immediate job function or discipline, and who avoid being too strongly typecast in one field, function, administrative body, or community. Find ways to meet people from a wide range of units, departments, projects, and professions. While specialisation has its benefits, from a leadership perspective you don’t want to get stuck in a rut. If your connections are only in your specialty, you will be less influential than if your connections cross a lot of boundaries. When it comes to social connections, there’s a payoff in mining deep and wide.

Greater connectedness can also be fostered when you and your colleagues have enough confidence in one another’s relationships to ask for help when needed. The impulse to give help when requested has been shown to be a powerful, automatic, and emotional response formed early in life. However, in many situations people underestimate how willing others would be to provide assistance when requested. There is a social cost to saying ‘no’ when someone asks for help. The person can be seen as uncaring, unreasonable, insensitive, and even cruel. Saying ‘yes’, by contrast, is a more positive and rewarding experience, and agreeing to help or cooperate strengthens the bond of connectedness between people. By making someone else happy, the person who has agreed to help also feels good about himself or herself and strengthens the bond of connectedness between them.

Researchers have demonstrated that people underestimate by nearly 50% the likelihood of receiving a positive response when requesting assistance, and this leads to lost opportunities, like prospective friends, colleagues, and clients going uncontacted, and squandering chances to increase connectedness. When you feel a sense of connection with someone else, you are more likely to volunteer your assistance, as is often demonstrated by onlookers who are most predisposed to help emergency victims if they feel they share something with them.

Developing leadership ability through high-quality connections

Feeling connected to the people you are working with enhances feelings of wellbeing and fosters greater commitment to colleagues. Research documents that high-quality connections contribute to people flourishing, resulting in better health, higher cognitive functioning, broader thinking, and stronger resilience. Individuals with high-quality relationships also have a better sense of whom to trust and not trust. They are more open, and they more fully understand themselves and the viewpoints of others.

You can more effectively develop your leadership abilities by connecting to people who can teach you about the skills you would like to acquire and the things you would like to achieve. Find out about their struggles, hardships and mistakes as well as their accomplishments.

Consider connecting with people who are not particularly well known but who nonetheless exhibit deep competence, unswerving dedication, and a good sense of who they are. Most importantly, select people who make you feel good about yourself. After all, the purpose of these relationships is to encourage and inspire you to be your best version of yourself.

Travis Carrigan, a senior engineer, told us that he’s been doing exactly this for years, which has led to some great opportunities and collaborative work. ‘These relationships,’ he says, ‘are phenomenal at helping me become a better leader, listener, and engineer.’

Limitations of virtual connections

What about virtual connections? Aren’t they a good way to foster collaboration and build trust? There is no question that virtual connections are prolific, and in a global economy no organisation could function if people had to fly halfway around the world to exchange information, make decisions, or resolve disputes. Proof of this can be found with the exponential growth in virtual communications during the global Covid-19 pandemic, and that demand has led to the development of new apps and platforms to meet the need. With a large percentage of people working from home and almost all educational institutions’ classes going online, virtual connections became the most frequent way in which people communicated, learned and conducted business.

That said, the stroke of a key, the click of a mouse, or the switch of a video doesn’t get you the same results that an in-person conversation does. In an era that is becoming more and more dependent on virtual connections, there’s a temptation to believe that such connections automatically lead to better relationships and greater trust. Unfortunately, virtual trust is much more difficult to both build and maintain than is trust developed in-person. Even among Gen Z employees, who make up 20% of today’s workforce, 72% indicate they prefer face-to-face communication at work.

Virtual trust, like virtual reality, is still one step removed from the real thing. People are social animals; it is their nature to want to interact face to face. Bits and bytes and pixilated images make for a very fragile social foundation. As handy as virtual tools such as email, voice mail, apps, and texts are for staying in touch, they are no substitute for positive face-to-face interactions.

This is an edited extract from Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership: How to Make a Difference Regardless of Your Title, Role, or Authority, by James M Kouzes and Barry Z Posner (Wiley, 2021).

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