Connection Culture: A book review by Bob Morris

Connection CultureConnection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work
Michael Lee Stallard with Jason Pankau and Katharine Stallard
Association for Talent Development (April 2015)

Here are “the elements of workplace cultures that help people and organizations thrive for sustained periods of time”

Most of the companies annually ranked among those that are most highly admired and best to work for are also annually ranked among those that are most profitable and have the greatest cap value in their competitive marketplace. That is no coincidence. However different they may be in most respects, all of them have a culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. In his latest book, written with Jason Pankau and Katharine Stallard, Michael Lee Stallard examines the elements of such a workplace culture.

As he explains, “An organization’s culture reflects the predominant ways of thinking, behaving, and working. To appreciate the importance of culture in the workplace, consider your own experiences. Over the course of your career, have you experienced times when you were eager to get to work in the morning, you were so immersed in your work that the hours flew by, and by the end of the day you didn’t want to stop working? What was it about the job that made you feel that way? How about the opposite? Have you experienced times when you struggled to get to work in the morning, the hours passed ever so slowly, and by the end of the day you were exhausted? Again, what was it about the job that made you feel that way?”

Over the years, I have worked within or closely observed hundreds of workplace cultures and agree with Stallard that understanding the factors that create a connection culture, one that enables people to thrive, is extremely important. Stallard notes, “According to Gallup’s employee engagement research, 70 to 74 percent of American workers are not engaged in their jobs. Globally, that percentage rises to 87 to 89 percent (Gallup 2013). Disengaged people show up for the paycheck, but don’t perform anywhere near what they are capable of if they were in a culture that energized and engaged them. This lack of employee engagement is a problem that’s about to become much bigger. The business world is becoming a much more global and competitive place, with standards going up all the time. Organizations with a large percentage of disengaged employees may not survive. Individuals who fall behind thanks to poor work cultures will also be in trouble.”

Stallard focuses on six specific needs: respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth, and meaning. “This list is derived from personal research, as well as research and insights from A.H. Maslow on hierarchy of needs and need deficits, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow and optimal experience, Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci on autonomy, and Viktor E. Frankl on meaning. The first three needs (respect, recognition, and belonging) are relational needs. When these needs are met, we feel connected to the people we work with. The next two (autonomy and personal growth) are task mastery needs, which affect how connected we feel to the work we are doing. Finally, the sixth need, meaning, is an existential need.” He provides research from neuroscience and organizational behavior to support his connection culture model.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of coverage in Connection Culture:

o Three Psychosocial Cultures: Connection, Control, and Indifference (Pages xv-vii)
o The Competitive Advantage of Connection (1-9)
o Michael’s personal epiphany from experience at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (2-5)
o Shared vision, identity, empathy, and compassion (13-15, 75-81, and 62-75))
0 Shard understanding and knowledge flow (15-16 and 81-85)
o Connection: universal character strengths (21-23 and 99-102)
o Mini-case studies (29-50)

Note: The mini-case studies include “Alan Mulally’s ‘Encore’ at Ford,” “Admiral Vernon Clark and Restoring Navy Pride,” “Frances Hesselbein Saves the Girl Scouts,” “Mike Krzyzewski’s ‘Aha Moment.'”

o Google (41-42, 58-59, and 68-69)
o Summary of research on organizational and individual wellness
o Summary of research on the decline of connection (53-54 and 60-64)
o Summary of research on organizational health and sustainability (56-60)
o Five Reasons Connection Cultures Need to Be a High Priority (65-66)
o Hiring, developing and promoting for competence and connection skills (72-75)
o Helping others to develop connection skills (77-81)
o Pixar’s connection culture (88-91)
o Three types of people in the context of connection (93)

One of Stallard’s key points is that the foundation of a workplace culture includes but is not limited to how people work together; it also includes personal interaction between and among those involved: how people treat each other…as people. I agree that everyone within an organization needs to develop connection skills, especially leaders, and I am convinced that, whatever their size and nature may be, all organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Specifically, in a healthy culture, employees who feel connected perform at the top of their game, give a best effort, align their behavior with organizational goals, help improve the quality of decision-making and problem-solving, and contribute as much as they can to improving what is done and how it is done.

I commend Michael Lee Stallard, Jason Pankau, and Katharine Stallard on the abundance of invaluable information, insights, and counsel in a concise volume of a little more than hundred pages (which includes the introduction and fascinating story about the rise of the rock band U2), accompanied by two appendices. Today’s time starved leaders and those who aspire to be leaders are sure to appreciate this book because it eliminates the fluff, cuts to the chase and is loaded with actionable recommendations. Almost all of this material is relevant to almost any organization in which there is an urgent need to elimination disconnection between and among its workforce, especially insofar as communication, cooperation, and (most important) collaboration are concerned. Efforts to eliminate disconnections will no doubt encounter stout resistance, usually cultural in nature, the result of what Jim O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Do not despair. Keep in mind this memorable observation by Margaret Mead: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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