Why Connection is the Heart of Culture Change at Work
…and What You Can Do to Improve lt.
“We experience our greatest sense of meaning and impact when we truly connect with others to do important work.”
There may not be a topic across the business landscape talked about more and acted on less: culture. In the current LinkedIn news cycle, we are bombarded by culture-related topics like the great resignation, quiet quitting, quiet firing, and now quiet promotions.
In a space so varied and cluttered, it can be overwhelming to have real conversation about how to manage and improve culture.
- Is it all about improving engagement?
- Is the simple answer better leadership?
- Are diversity and inclusion the key?
- Do we just need the right values and all our problems will be solved?
- Do we not have the right vision or purpose?
- Is the foundation of it building psychological safety or clarity and alignment?
Answering these questions may be necessary in some form, but for far too long, the practice of improving culture has been linked to silver bullets.
Culture can seem endlessly complicated, which drives many to turn away from the fundamentals of culture to more superficial solutions. Unfortunately, nearly all advocates and experts in the culture space overlook one indisputable truth that helps simplify the topic— connection is the heart of culture change.
To get you started on an actionable path, we’ve boiled the conversation down to a clear way forward. We’ve called it Compass.
It’s time to stop talking about culture and start building connection with our team at work.
What is Connection?
We define connection as the level of open and trusting relationships and shared commitment to achieving results in pursuit of a defined purpose.
The Breakdown — Connection in Three Areas
- Connection to each other – Do team members have open and trusting relationships
- Connection to purpose – Why does the group exist? Is there a shared commitment to support this purpose?
- Connection to results – How will you know if the group is on track with supporting the purpose? Is there a shared commitment to the results that will define success?
It all comes back to true connection to the work people are doing.
Why does connection matter?
- It helps create open, honest, and transparent conversation so we can solve problems together.
- It improves the quality and quantity of communication.
- It makes work more meaningful and creates energy toward our purpose.
- It establishes trust through sharing vulnerability.
- Most importantly, it puts the diverse strength, experiences, and perspectives of the team online to supercharge results.
Improving connection is the first step to sparking meaningful culture change. This makes complete sense when you understand some facts about culture and how cultures change.
Why is connection the heart of culture change?
- Social Bonds – Culture is, by definition, a group thing, and the social bonds of individuals in a group depend on the level of relationships. Do you feel known, truly known, by those you work with? Do you believe you truly know them?
- Shared Learning – Edgar Schein, arguably the top culture expert in history, said culture is created and evolves through shared learning. Individuals will not be enough to maximize their learning without connection. They may not share what they think individually, inhibiting the shared learning in a group.
- Achieving Results – Organizations do not exist to have a great culture. They exist to serve their purpose. A shared commitment to the group’s purpose and associated results is necessary for the shared learning to be translated to action in ways that help both people and results.
- Becoming Psychologically
safedriven – The combination of strong connection to each other, your work, and you purpose delivers far more than psychological safety. Team members in organizations with high connection don’t just feel “safe”—they feel compelled or “driven” to act in support of building relationships and delivering results together. Psychological safety is table stakes; the goal should be becoming psychologically driven. Individuals may feel safe or take proactive action 90% of the time, but that last 10% is where the most significant learning, innovation, and improvement occurs. That last is where being psychologically driven pays off.
- Truth and Transparency – The key to producing positive outcomes in any organization is building an accurate understanding of reality. The stronger our levels of safety and connection, the more truthful and transparent we can be with one another. When this happens, teams are better at decision-making and operate from a strong sense of reality.
“Every time we withhold our thoughts, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning. This stifles innovation in our teams and companies. Few managers stop to consider what ideas, concerns, or questions may have been lurking in people ‘s minds but held back. Simply put, the act of not speaking up with an important work relevant idea is not visible.”
How Culture Changes
To help our audience move from ‘dazed and confused’ to solidly able to impact the culture of their teams, we have defined a clear summary of How Culture Changes.
We developed the heart of the framework in collaboration with culture pioneers Edgar and Peter Schein. When you learn how culture changes, it empowers your with groups beyond anything you have tried before.
Four things must exist to say a culture change has occurred:
- New ways of doing
- Have to happen over a period of time
- People have to like them
- They have to get us better results
The process is enduring, and there is no magical culture fairy dust. To create sustainable change, we have to use our desired state (empowerment, accountability, better collaboration, or more strategic planning) to impact the scoreboards we care about most.
When this happens, we create the learning that shifts beliefs and positively impacts culture.
Connection Impacts All Four Phases of Culture Change
- New ways of doing – New behaviors will not be sparked or spread unless a sufficient level of connection to the new ways of work exists. Yes, some leaders may mandate a new behavior, and others will fall in line, but the goal should be to spark effective behavior people want to live out. For sustainability, people must try a new behavior because they see “it works” or helps, not because we told them to. We want behaviors that “work” and help us deliver results in people-oriented ways. Strong connection helps spark a chain reaction of team members identifying, trying, sharing, and spreading behavior not because they have to, but because they want to.
- Happen over time – We’re not targeting a one-time occurrence of new behavior. Our goal is to create learning with behavior that is sustainable and ideally becomes written into the way our team operates. Culture change is messy and hard. A solid connection to each other and a commitment to the purpose are necessary to overcome the inevitable challenges that emerge with trying anything new or different. Encouragement and support from others are a vital part of the formula, as is the ability to hold others accountable. Both come far more easily in the presence of solid connection.
- We have to like it – Initially, some team members may not like a new behavior, but that changes when they see the value. If not, it will be easy to revert to past behavior considered easier or appropriate when a change gets hard or if a new leader enters the scene. Often, it takes revisions of our original thinking about new ways of doing. Strong connection to each other, our work, and our purpose helps us create open and honest feedback loops that improve our original thinking. When connection is strong, we are open to share our true feelings about what works instead of worrying what others think.
- It has to deliver results – Results are the reinforcement loop for any new cultural attribute to form. This concept may be counter-intuitive because some people think about the need to change culture to deliver results. Results must precede the culture change in some form because they are the feedback loop that tells us a behavior “worked” and is positively impacting the team. Connection, including the shared commitment to the purpose, results, and the work itself, drives people to be and to find ways to work collaboratively with others to deliver them.
Culture Change Starts with Connection
Many approaches to culture improvement can lead to new ways of doing, happening over a period of time, people liking it, and delivering results, so why start with connection?
The answer lies in diving below the surface to understand how “new ways of doing” emerge.
We need to understand what sparks new ways of doing because, without them, they can’t happen over a period of time, people can’t like them, and they will not deliver results. It helps to think through how to move from “current ways of doing” to “new ways of doing.” We believe this shift starts with safety and connection.
Four things are essential to intentionally move from current ways of doing to new ways of doing:
- Safety connection — moving from transactional relationships to personal
- Education — why is the new behavior valuable, and how do we bring it to life?
- Leadership Support — encouraging the new behavior and redirecting the old
- Aligned systems, structures processes — energy flows across the path of least resistance
New ways of doing start with safety and connection because there are countless moments of truth in organizations where individuals consider a new way of doing. The level of connection at work is an important factor that influences whether an individual will act on their thinking.
If two team members have moved from a more transactional to a personal relationship, both are more likely to consider trying a new way of doing with each other. This same concept applies in groups and is overlooked when sparking meaningful change. Connection helps every individual move from thinking of a new way of doing to acting on that thinking and exhibiting a new behavior or new way of doing.
Iterations of education, leadership support, and aligned systems all require significant alignment of efforts to manage at scale. Safety and connection can sustainably help the organization tap into the diverse knowledge and strengths of team members.
How To Improve Connection
We’ve covered what connection is, why it’s important, how it drives culture change, and why it’s the starting point to spark new ways of doing. The big question is how to improve it.
There are many options, but we’ve built one approach that makes a more significant impact than anything else we have encountered. It’s called Compass.
“We built Compass to become known to one another and solve hard problems together.”
-BERT BEAN, INSIGHT GLOBAL CEO
Compass is an approach that starts with a deeper level of communication and ends with new commitments about how a team plans to manage the way forward.
There are five key components to a successful compass.
- Connect to each other. Speaking one by one in a team, we talk through questions that create open, transparent, and vulnerable dialogue. In Compass, we create safety in the group by inviting team members to speak openly, challenge the status quo, and ‘go there’ by honestly communicating how they feel at work. We ask questions like: what gets you out of bed in the morning? What keeps you up at night? What were your low and high moments across the last 12 months? What holds this team back? What is your greatest aspiration for what this group can become?
- Connect to our purpose. Having connected on a more personal level, we derive the purpose of a group by understanding the impact we care about creating together. Too often, purpose is overcomplicated and treated with white gloves. We connect to purpose by asking questions like: when we are at our best, what impact do we create in the world around us? In the work we do, what has the most meaning? What do we most want to accomplish in the next 12 months and why? Your purpose can be the fancy sentence on your company website or the impact your team cares about the most.
- Connect to results. With a clear understanding of our purpose, we can focus on achieving significant supporting results in people-oriented ways instead of managing culture for culture’s sake. Connecting our work and efforts to results is crucial to creating alignment and transparency across the group. Here we select a prioritized set of results that most align with our purpose.
- Explore. The process of slowing down to get to know each other better and to bond over a shared purpose creates a psychologically driven environment where team members are free to be open and transparent about what is helping and hurting our ability to achieve results. Through exploration, we arrive at a co-authored understanding of the new ways of doing we must commit to for us to deliver the results that matter the most.
- Improve and learn. Based on what surfaced in explore, teams commit to a prioritized list of changes and build an accountability structure that includes regular review, reflection, and refinement of plans. This creates learning about what is working and what is not, which creates change by developing sustainable learning. When we translate the power of connection into consistent action to which all team members are accountable, we have taken giant steps toward building a trusting and effective team.
“Curiosity is the key to connecting and staying connected.”
-FROM A CURIOUS MIND BY BRIAN GLAZER
While it may be a challenge to walk through steps 1 through 5, you always have time to get connected in the flow of your work. We can create connection through intentional and planned time set aside, or we can create it in the micro-moments in our work.
- Before kicking off a team meeting, check in to see how everyone is doing.
- Notice the tone and body language of those around you. Address those you feel are experiencing burnout or drifting from the team’s purpose.
- Spend one-on-one time with team members and go out of your way to ask people how they are doing. Listen intently and learn things about them you didn’t know.
- Be honest about the challenges you face and open up about your vulnerabilities. Take a moment to pause or reflect on the impact you create.
- Start your week by assessing your calendar. How much time are you spending caring for your results? How much time are you investing in caring for the people who get the results?
Opportunities for connection are all around us. So often, the smallest gestures have the most significant impact. No matter how you do it, once you learn that connection is the heart of culture, you can’t go back.
When we stop chasing the latest trend and start at the root of our ability to improve, our level of connection, we will take better care of our people and get better results. When this happens, the world gets that much closer to becoming a better place.
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