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What’s a connection culture, and how do we get there?

A new book comes up with a better definition of what a winning culture needs.

11 min read



Culture is a real field of study and real, if nothing else, in the sense that people believe in it and can perceive good, bad and nonexistent cultures.

But “culture” used off-hand is vague. It implies stasis when individual humans are not static. An organization is merely a collection of individual humans, and so culture is always fluctuating, affected by internal and external forces, and fragmenting.

This difficulty in moving from the concept to the murkier reality is possibly why John Traphagan recently warned against the term “company culture”:

“The problem here is that while we use the term “culture” constantly, most of us give very little thought to what that term means and how its use influences behavior and thought within organizations.”

But that leaves us at square one. Perhaps we’d be better to spell out what exactly we mean by culture itself, as well as a “connection culture.”

  • What are the terms, the shared values and the conditions necessary?
  • What is the science and research behind these claims?
  • What are the proper caveats for the complexity of defining a company culture, building one and maintaining it at scale and over the long term?
  • How do we build culture at scale, especially when “culture” is ultimately about many local, social cultures within an organization?
  • How do we get started, even if we aren’t the boss?

Michael Lee Stallard, with Jason Pankau and Katharine P. Stallard, makes this effort in the concise yet richly dense “Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work,” released last week by the Association for Talent Development. I recently spoke with him about the book (disclosure: I have a blurb up front praising the book), what a “connection culture” means and what inspired him to write this, his second book.

There’s much, much more in the book, but for now, here are some highlights of our discussion that hopefully sketch the journey to the book and what it stands for.

The discovery: What happens when people feel heard

“Connection Culture” was over a decade in the making, even though Stallard wrote “Fired Up Or Burned Out” in the meantime. The first seeds of what such a culture might look like came firsthand, many years ago, after Stallard had shifted from investment banking to becoming chief marketing officer at Morgan Stanley’s private wealth management division.

Stallard, new to this business, didn’t assume he had the answers. He looked to learn indirectly through research and directly by traveling to various global offices. He showed people at these offices his thoughts and asked for feedback. Some were suspicious, but others welcomed the opportunity.

“You just have those truth-tellers who will tell you what they think,” Stallard said. “And I learned a lot from them. And I also found that, a number of them who were very enthusiastic. I heard some people say, ‘Wow, it’s about time someone from New York started asking questions instead of telling them the answers.'”

Stallard took back that information, with due credit given, and what happened next? Feedback started coming from those offices:

“Hey Mike, you know, Goldman Sachs is doing this, I thought you ought to know about it. Or, we’re seeing this in clients, and we thought this might be something that’s of interest to you. And it really just created this global network of intelligence, where these people who were on the front lines were picking up the phone and just calling me when they had something they thought I should know about.

Two key insights Stallard learned:

  1. These teams wanted access to information and were finally getting it. This lack of access had not been because of malicious intent by senior management, but rather a failure to recognize that such teams “were curious. They wanted to know.”
  2. Showing interest in people’s insights reaps rewards. Stallard recognized he didn’t know this business, and by asking for advice and giving due credit, he rewarded and encouraged further help. “It gave them a voice to share what they knew. I could see they were enthusiastic about that. … And then the cynics started converting, saying, ‘You know, Mike, he’s one of us. He’s on our side.'”

Simply put, as Stallard phrases it in the book, we’re talking about “shared identity, empathy, and understanding.”

Stallard eventually left Morgan Stanley, armed with that knowledge plus plus years at other multinational companies and experience seeing how difficult corporate mergers were in terms of culture.

Burnout does not a good culture (or healthful person) make

Why did Stallard leave Wall Street? Frankly, he was burned out. As he recently wrote:

As my job became more demanding I grew increasingly disconnected from my family. I didn’t feel well. My health began to suffer. I needed a lot of coffee to get me going in the morning and alcohol to slow me down at night. Eventually I left Wall Street to recover and figure out how I drifted so far from who I aspired to become.

On a personal level, Stallard could also sense how culture affected his actions. “At some stages of my careers I was eager to get up in the morning, and the hours flew by, and I didn’t want to stop working,” Stallard said. “And other days I could hardly get out of bed. … I hadn’t changed. It was the culture I was in that was having a positive or negative effect.”

The research-backed health dangers of disconnection

His initial research then helped him develop this seed of an idea through the insights of others.

“When people told me [about] when they felt engaged,” Stallard said, “I just periodically heard the word ‘connection’ or ‘clicked.’ … it was all about this clicking or feeling connected to — ‘this work feels like I was made to do this.'” From there, he and his research partners started to drill down into this focus over years.

Over time, he realized, having a sense of connection means people are less stressed. Connection “makes people feel safe. It improves their decision-making ability and their creativity because they do feel safe,” Stallard said. “And when they’re in a culture that’s fast-changing, it can be threatening. And then people go into a stress response, where their bodies physiologically start to allocate blood glucose and oxygen to the ‘flight or fight’ systems. … And if they’re stuck in that state all the time because their culture is not safe, it’s a culture of control or a culture of indifference to people, then they’re very vulnerable” in their health.

This is also a long-term problem. Overall health, digestive and immune systems, and ultimately productivity (the workplace problem) and serious health problems (the personal problem). Scott Eblin, among others, has written on the mind and body aspect of work.

Notably, Stallard entered his research fearing a culture of control, but his research taught him that a culture of indifference was actually worse than (most) cultures of control — no human connections, just toxicity and loneliness.

What are the values of a connected culture?

So, we know some of the problems. But what is the fix? Most broadly, Stallard says:

“How do we create a culture where we will be our best, individually and collectively, so that we’re more creative, we’re better decision makers, we’re healthier, we’re happier …”

His book chooses six universal needs of humans: respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth, and meaning.

I asked him specifically about belonging, partly out of my own interest and because it feels to me like a personal step beyond respect and recognition and autonomy — the latter three are much more common phrasings in HR departments.

Belonging can be as simple as managers caring about employees “not just as means to an end, but they care about them because they’re people, because they’re breathing,” Stallard says. “And they hold people in high esteem because they’re human beings.”

When Paul Spiegelman was at Beryl Cos., he enacted an online system for employees to alert executives whenever an employee had some sort of need. As Stallard relates:

“[One employee] broke his glasses in an accident, and so Beryl had his glasses replaced. And I think Paul actually went and visited him when he was in the hospital. You know, little things like that … these may not be hugely expensive things, but they are very heartfelt, genuine beliefs on the part of the leadership at that company. And the people who work there know it, and they perform. They feel like a family company.”

Success stories, big, medium and small

Another example meets several of these needs, yet is incredibly simple: A one-word change in labeling by Pfizer. After a merger, when the company saw how the other firm called workers “colleagues” rather than “employees,” Pfizer adopted this practice for the whole company.

“Language is important. And it just sends a message to the colleagues they work with at Pfizer … that you’re one of us,” Stallard says.

Beyond that, Stallard says, Pfizer looks to its managers to develop talent and push that talent outward. People who have not just autonomy but also real opportunity for personal growth are getting a leg up, in most cases, on the search for the other universal needs.

Fortunately, you needn’t be a huge corporation to create a great, connected culture. You needn’t even be at headquarters. Stallard has recounted the story of Bryan Crawford, who refused to lay off people at his New Zealand subsidiary in 2008. His alternative plan brought all employees together, with transparency about the problems and teamwide involvement in the solutions. It worked so well that his unit nearly quadrupled in size and their culture lessons are being adopted by the broader organization. It takes brave action, planning and followup, but it can be done even if you’re not the boss.

For even smaller companies, it can be more difficult, Stallard admits. One step is to offer new and different projects to help blocked employees grow. Another is the famous “20% time” or some variant. A third option that almost by definition requires a “connected” culture, Stallard shared, is active mentoring:

“[One CEO] said, ‘Everyone needs a mentor,’ so they identified what everyone wanted to grow in, and they would pair them with someone who was good at it. And it created these mentoring relationships where, if I wanted to be a better speaker … that person would share with me what they do, some things they’ve learned from their experience. And every year it would change: ‘What do you want to grow in this year?'”

What can you do? Plenty.

All the above examples sound top-down, but HQ cannot enforce culture. “Recognize that the most important culture is the local subculture, the people you interact with day in and day out,” Stallard said. After all, Pfizer could issue a directive and create conditions to ease its implementation, but it was ultimately up to many people in many places. Stallard could be open to feedback and communicate with Morgan Stanley employees as group CMO, but the people at each location also had to buy in.

So, how can we begin?

Chapter 5 of “Connection Culture” offers more than a dozen steps to help people get started on making “a connection culture actionable and operational.” These steps require reflection, investigation and trial and error. They are not simple, but they are not unnecessarily complex or impossible missions.

This, of course, is easier when you’re in charge — either the CEO or a department head or some other kind of manager. But, as Stallard said in our conversation and in the book, each person can build connections without becoming distracted by what’s not in their control.

As he writes: “Be intentional about developing the habits of attitude, language, and behavior that connect, and work to develop a connection culture in your organization. Start local and see how it grows from there.”


James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship, among others. Before joining SmartBrief, he was copy desk chief at a daily newspaper in upstate New York. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues @SBLeaders.

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