Dog SledTeams, the Antidote to Employee Disengagement

by Michael Lee Stallard

For the second year in a row, 84 percent of American workers intendConnection cultures in the workplace build teams and innovation to actively look for a new job. This according to a recent survey by Right Management.  Last year, The Conference Board published a report with the subtitle “America’s Unhappy Workers.”   The report concluded that employee satisfaction was at its lowest point since The Conference Board began surveying it more that 20 years ago.

The good news is that is doesn’t have to be this way. Leaders can develop workplace cultures that engage people. There are three types of workplace cultures: Dog-Eat-Dog Cultures, Indifferent Cultures (cultures that are indifferent to people and treat them as “human doings”), and Connection Cultures, where people feel connected to their organization’s identity (i.e. mission, values and reputation), where they feel connected to their colleagues and supervisor, and where they feel connected to their role in the organization (because it fits their strengths and provides the right degree of challenge).

Connection is the force that transforms a dog-eat-dog culture into a sled dog team that pulls together. Without going too far into the psychology of connection, let me just summarize by saying simply that we are humans, not machines. We have emotions. We have hopes and dreams. We have a conscience. We have deeply felt human needs to be respected, to be recognized for our talents, to belong, to have autonomy or control over our work, to experience personal growth, and to do work that we feel is worthwhile in a way that we feel is ethical.

When we work in an environment that recognizes these realities of our human nature, we thrive. We feel more energetic, more optimistic, and more fully alive. When we work in an environment that fails to recognize this, it is damaging to our mental and physical health.

Let’s consider how this plays out in the workplace. When we first meet people, we expect them to respect us. If they look down on us, if they are uncivil or condescending, we get upset. In time, as our colleagues get to know us, we expect them to appreciate or recognize us for our talents and contributions. That really makes us feel good. Later on, we begin to expect that we will be treated and thought of as an integral part of the community. Our connection to the group is further strengthened when we feel we have control over our work.

Connection is diminished when we feel we are being micro-managed or over-controlled by others. If we are over-controlled, it sends the message that we are being treated like children or incompetents, and it’s a sign that we are not trusted or respected.

Connection is also enhanced when we experience personal growth. In other words: when our role, our work in the group, is a good fit with our skills, providing enough challenge to make us feel good when we rise to meet that challenge (but not so much challenge that we become totally stressed out). Finally, it motivates us to know our work is worthwhile in some way and to be around other people who share our belief that our work is important.

To the extent that these human needs of respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning are met, we feel connected to the group. When they are not met, we feel less connected, or even disconnected.

The bottom line is that connection plays a critical part in improving individual performance. People who are more connected with others fare better in life than those who are less connected.

Connection, because it meets our human needs, makes people more trusting, more cooperative, more empathetic, more enthusiastic, more optimistic, more energetic, more creative and better problem solvers. It creates the type of environment in which people want to help their colleagues. They are more open to share information that helps decision makers become better-informed. The openness that emerges in a trusting and cooperative environment creates a robust marketplace of ideas that stimulates innovation. Connection among people improves performance in an organization and creates a new source of competitive advantage.

In May, I’ll be speaking on the topic “Should Managers Care About Employee Happiness” in Denver at the annual conference of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). I’ve also written a chapter on this topic for the soon to be published ASTD Handbook on Management. Jason Pankau and I also recently recorded an interview on Connection Cultures and employee engagement before we spoke at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. You can hear the interview at this link.

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