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Why we long for leaders who actually care about us

Employees feel loneliness and lack connection when they don't sense that leaders care about them. Here's how to fix that in your culture.

8 min read


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This article is written by Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard.

Do the people around you know that you are for them? Do they know whether you care about them, want them to be able to do their individual best, and will advocate for them?

Having this assurance promotes a feeling of connection. It goes a long way in establishing trust and an environment of psychological safety. But if they don’t know with certainty that you are for them, they may feel you are indifferent to them (which is disconnecting) or assume, rightly or wrongly, that you are against them (which is very disconnecting).

For a whole host of reasons, now is an important time for leaders who care about people to be sure that the message is being received loud and clear.

Why does it matter that people know you are for them?

The disconnection people are experiencing today is broader than loneliness, a point Noreena Hertz makes in her book “The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart.” Here’s what she says (emphasis ours):

“Reshaped by globalization, urbanization, growing inequality and power asymmetries, by demographic change, increased mobility, technological disruption, austerity, and now by [the Covid-19 pandemic] too, I believe the contemporary manifestation of loneliness goes beyond our yearning for connection by those physically around us, our craving for love and being loved, and the sadness we feel from being bereft of friends. It also incorporates how disconnected we feel from politicians and politics, how cut off we feel from our work and our workplace, how excluded many of us feel from society’s gains, and how powerless, invisible, and voiceless so many of us believe ourselves to be. It’s a loneliness that includes but is also greater than our desire to feel close to others because it is also a manifestation of our need to feel heard, to be seen, to be cared for, to have agency, to be treated fairly, kindly, and with respect.”

We agree with her. This is a loneliness that some of your colleagues may be bringing with them when they come to work or experiencing on the job if they don’t feel seen, heard and valued by those around them. In either case, this disconnection will negatively affect their engagement and productivity.

We firmly believe that not only do people at work need to know where they stand with you and their other colleagues, but also the conditions have to be right for connection to be maintained. This is where culture comes in.

We’ve argued that unhealthy work cultures are a primary cause of the Great Resignation. While many articles and media coverage on the historic level of job quits suggest employees are leaving to pursue better-paying jobs, monetary compensation is only part of the story. Having experienced such disruption and change during the pandemic, people are reevaluating what is important to them and giving more weight to what we refer to as emotional compensation.

Research recently highlighted in MIT Sloan Management Review supports our view that toxic work cultures are driving the Great Resignation. Presenting empirical evidence, the authors identify the top five predictors of attrition.

Their conclusion?

“A toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover. Our analysis found that the leading elements contributing to toxic cultures include failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; workers feeling disrespected; and unethical behavior. … Not surprisingly, companies with a reputation for a healthy culture, including Southwest Airlines, Johnson & Johnson, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and LinkedIn, experienced lower-than-average turnover during the first six months of the Great Resignation.”

In short, because the relational aspects of culture have a direct impact on an employee’s decision to stay or quit, it is critical for leaders to proactively build those relationships and demonstrate that they care.

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How will people know you are for them?

Have you ever told the individuals around you that you are for them, especially those you are responsible for leading? More importantly, do your actions convey that you are for them?

As we wrote in “Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work” (second edition), this will make a difference, especially if you are a supervisor providing constructive criticism or you are working through a setback or a challenging season as a team.

Toward the end of a recent leadership workshop we were teaching, the well-respected senior leader who had hired us quietly slipped into the back of the room to observe. As we wrapped up, he came forward to say a few words to the group.

He thanked them for taking part, acknowledging the busyness of their schedules and the stress they were under. He shared his deep-seated conviction that “leadership really matters” and that he knew from experience great leadership makes a difference to an organization.

He said he realized the organization hadn’t invested enough in training to support them in their leadership roles, that Connection Culture was something he really believed in, and the workshop and coaching component to follow was an effort to remedy the lack of investment in them in the past.

Then he opened it up for discussion and feedback.

Witnessing this, we were struck by how this leader’s message resonated and had an impact on the men and women in the room. These were not empty words. He is a leader who cares about the people he was speaking to, and they knew it. He is a leader who has been transparent about experiencing burnout earlier in his career. His concern for his colleagues’ well-being is genuine and unmistakable, and his transparency in acknowledging the organization’s past shortcomings and actions to address them give weight to his words.

So what should a leader do? In our work with leaders, we explain that boosting emotional compensation is based on meeting seven universal human needs to thrive at work:

  1. Respect
  2. Recognition
  3. Belonging
  4. Autonomy
  5. Personal growth
  6. Meaning
  7. Progress

The resulting sense of connection from having these needs met engenders positive emotions and makes us feel connected to our work and our colleagues.

Leaders who cultivate a culture of connection through communicating an inspiring vision, valuing people and not thinking of or treating them as means to an end, and giving them a voice will meet the seven needs, unite employees and foster a relational environment that helps people do their best work.

Here are 3 actions to consider

1. Take time to “walk the halls” and personally check in on the people you are responsible for leading to see how they’re doing. Stress, loneliness, anxiety and exhaustion are high today.

People are busy; the “to do” list is long. Intentionally devoting time to regularly chat with people — asking how they are and actively listening to them — is a practice that shows respect and fosters a sense of belonging. It will also underscore the importance that you place on having a culture that values connection.

2. Invest in training your leaders on how to cultivate a healthy work culture. This show you care about them and want to do more than just talk about having a good culture for them to work in. It will also show you are for them as leaders and want to equip them with the mindset and skill set to cultivate a healthy culture in their particular group.

To attract, engage and retain the people your organization needs, leaders at all levels need to give attention to culture.

3. Establish a mentoring program so that everyone is learning and growing. This is one means to address the human need for personal growth, plus it provides another opportunity to develop connections within the organization as mentor and mentee spend time together. Be sure to train people on how to mentor in a way that is encouraging and connecting.

By taking time to demonstrate that you care about people as individuals and want them to be engaged and fully contributing teammates, you will help the people you are responsible for leading feel more connected to you and to your organization. You will also be making a smart investment in retaining employees at a time when many are looking for greener pastures.

Michael Lee Stallard, president and co-founder of Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of “Connection Culture” and “Fired Up or Burned Out.”

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to “Connection Culture.” To receive a 28-page “100 Ways to Connect” e-book, sample chapters of “Connection Culture” and Stallard’s  monthly Connection Culture email newsletter at no cost, sign up here

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