How to Foster Social Connections at Work

Not everyone has to be best friends, but you do have to build a culture of mutual respect and authenticity.
July 12, 2017

If you’re a leader, you not only have the power to strengthen your own connections, but to foster a work environment that values, instead of hinders, social investment.

For example, when new hires enter an organization, leaders can take the time to introduce them to everyone, even—and especially—people in other departments with whom they might not be working directly. In fact, why stop there; existing employees, too, should do all they can to meet others in far-flung corners of the organization. That’s why some companies have long-term employees spend one day learning the ropes of a different department. After all, the more chances for employees to meet one another, the more chances they have to forge high-quality connections

 

To be even more effective, the introductions should go beyond just name, department and job description.

 

So if you’re in a leadership position in your company, simply introducing two employees who don’t know each other is probably the easiest and fastest way to invest in social dividends. To be even more effective, the introductions should go beyond just name, department and job description. Mike Morrison, vice president and dean of the University of Toyota, likes to ask employees: “What’s on the other side of your card?” In other words, the front of your business card might read “Managing Director,” but you might better identify with “big picture thinker” or “educator” or “calm under fire.” This kind of information—or even a few simple details like where a person lives, what his or her favorite hobby is—cuts through the red tape to get somewhere more meaningful, and it can more immediately and effectively forge a connection between two people.

Related: How to Build Good Relationships

It is important to note that building strong social capital does not require that all colleagues become best friends or even that everyone like one another all the time—this would be impossible. But what does matter is that there is mutual respect and authenticity. Coercing employees into awkward icebreakers or forced bonding activities, like making everyone at a meeting share something about their private lives, only breeds disconnection and mistrust. Better that these moments happen organically—which will if the environment is right. The best leaders give their employees the space and time to let moments of social connection develop on their own. So the more physical spaces available to publicly commune, the better. When a CEO of one company saw that some of the best social connections—people laughing, swapping stories about their weekend, bounding ideas off one another—were taking place in the stairwells, he actually expanded the stairways and put coffee machines on the landings to encourage this practice.

Time for team lunches and after-hours socialization is also crucial. Even the classically boring meeting, says Jane Dutton, can be designed in a way to foster high-quality connections. Meeting practices that encourage member contribution and active listening foster group commitment. One of the best managing directors I know makes his meetings phone-free, so that all eyes are on one another at all times. He is an example of a leader Dutton would call “relationally attentive.” The more attentive we are to the relationships dynamics of our teams, the better.

Related: Titles Don’t Make Leaders—But These 7 Actions Do

If our goal is to foster team cohesion, the language we use matters. We can promote social connection at work just by using language that implies a common purpose and interdependence. Dutton also recommends that we work on being present, both physically and mentally. That means when someone walks into your office to talk, don’t stare at your computer screen. When someone calls you on the phone, don’t keep typing that email. An accountant once told me that the minute he heard a clicking keyboard on the other end of the phone call, he knew his boss was disengaged. Forging a connection requires active listening—giving someone your full attention and also allowing them to have their say. As Dutton explains, “many people listen as if waiting for an opportunity to make their own point.” Instead, focus on the speaker and their opinion, and then ask interested questions to learn more.

 

The best way to form more connections at work is to get out from behind the desk.

 

The leaders most committed to social investment also get moving, quite literally. The best way to form more connections at work is to get out from behind the desk. This idea of “managing by walking around” was popularized in the 1980s by leadership expert Tom Peters, who learned about the practice from the leaders of Hewlett-Packard. (Peters even gave it an acronym—MBWA—to signify its importance.) MBWA allows managers to get to know employees, share good news and best practices, hear concerns, offer solutions and deliver encouragement. 

Related: Dr. Henry Cloud: The Most Important Part of Success Is Connection

Connecting with employees face-to-face also provides a perfect opportunity to put into practice frequent recognition and feedback. Delivering specific and authentic praise for a job well done also strengthens the connection between two people. This is why I often ask managers to write an email of praise or thanks to a friend, family member or colleague each morning before they start their day’s work—not just because it contributes to their own happiness, but because it very literally cements a relationship. Whether the thank you is for years of emotional support or for one day of help around the office, expressions of gratitude at work have been proven to strengthen both personal and professional bonds.

In fact, studies have shown that gratitude sparks an upward spiral of relationship growth where each individual feels motivated to strengthen the bond. It also predicts feelings of integration and cooperation within a larger group, which means that the more gratitude one employee expresses toward another employee, the more social cohesion they feel among the whole team. In other words, gratitude can fuel your own identity as a “glue guy.”

Related: What Kind of Leader Are You? A Fixer, Fighter or Friend?

 

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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