I recently interview Michael Lee Stallard, author of The Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work and the co-founder and president of E Pluribus Partners helping leaders elevate productivity and innovation by increasing employee engagement and connection. He’s a guest columnist everywhere it seems from Forbes to Inc. He’s recently partnered with Texas Christian University to create a Center for Connection Culture.You can listen to our conversation here.
Michael, welcome to the show. Thank you for being here.
Well, thank you Zane. It’s good to be here.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Who needs to read "The Connection Culture?"
Anyone who works. I say that because the gist of the book, Zane, is about how the interactions in the workplace affect us as human beings. So it gets into the biology and looking at research on that. It turns out it has a profound effect on us in terms of productivity, the joy we experience in life, our health and lifespan. It’s relevant to everyone in the workplace.
It’s especially relevant to leaders because they have the greatest influence on creating cultures. Not every culture is the same and that’s what this book is about, giving people the language to understand what is culture and secondly what are the best cultures out there in the workplace. How to create the best culture.
One of the trends I like most in the employee engagement conversation is the renewed focus on what you just touched on which is the biology of employee engagement, of engaged employees. You recently tweeted an article in the NY Times about how the heavy workload of our is breaking this culture of connection. Can you talk a little bit about that, uh, briefly?
Sure. You bet. And it kind of factors into what I’m writing about for my next book.
After World War II America, if you looked at the health, both mental and physical, of Americans versus the wealthy countries in the world we were at the top. But, over the course of, um, the last sixty years or so we’ve seen our health decline. The National Institute of Medicines, which is a prestigious national academy bench-marked the health of Americans under the years of fifty years old and compared it to the data for sixteen other countries in the world. And Americans, under fifty now have the lowest life expectancy versus the other countries. Matter of fact, in nine health outcomes we rank dead last including infant mortality.
Now, when I share this data with people it’s shocking. We’ve drifted from being the most healthy to the least healthy of the healthy, affluent countries. And, the drift has been so gradual that we haven’t noticed how our culture has become unhealthy.
And that’s part of what this book is about. We’re hard-wired to connect. And when those needs are not met it effects us in every way.
You know that’s so amazing. Here we have the greatest economy. We’re supposed to have the greatest healthcare system in the world. And during the period where hours of work have continued to increase including the stresses of moving to a part-time employee and being a contractor. All of that. The most important asset to a company has become the most abused asset. I hate that term "asset" in terms of our friends, peers and colleagues.
Right. That’s true. When you step back, it’s not only that people are working longer hours, just to take a little broader perspective for a minute. They work longer hours but they are working workplaces that are less relationship-friendly. For example if you got out for lunch with a colleague and you’re not having lunch at your desk you’re considered a slacker in the culture. I certainly saw that when I worked on Wall Street. That pressure for free face time.There’s a professor at Wharton who reports that 25% of workers on Wall Street are struggling with mental health issues which ultimately comes down to, primarily I believe, loneliness.
But just to mention some other factors, how we work longer hours in a less relationship-friendly workplace, our commutes are longer, our families are spread out, people are less involved in community groups, whether its faith groups such as the church or synagogues or the Boy Scouts, what have you. We’ve just become a lonelier culture. Because we’re hard-wired to connect as human beings and when that need isn’t met we dysfunction. And that’s what we’re seeing at the end of the day is that mental and physical health of Americans is sliding and there are a number of factors contributing to it. But I think the primary factor is this, just that need that we have as human beings for that relational support in life is not being met and that makes us more vulnerable to stress and anxiety all the way to addiction.
Crystal clear. Thank you.
Years ago Verne Harnish outlined three questions that seem to drive all of our decisions. I’ll play the role of a leader who’s listening on the conversation and ask it from their perspective on the conversation.
Michael, what’s in it for me? What’s in "The Connection Culture" for me as a leader of my organization or team?
Well, leaders are creating one of three cultures. The first is a culture of control and that’s where people who have power, control influence status, rule over others. That has a negative effect on connection. The second, which we see growing in our research, is a culture of indifference. That’s where people are so busy with emails, too much information, etc. But they don’t take time to build healthy, supportive relationships in work and outside the workplace. And, that, this need for connection is not being met. And that’s the culture of indifference. The third type is the culture of connection. That’s where people feel connected to their coworkers, to their supervisors, to the work they do because it’s tied to their strengths and the right degree of challenge. They also feel connected to the organization’s mission, its values and reputation. Those connections really have a grounding effect on us and makes us more resilient to stress and anxiety.
But why should I care? I mean I got work to do. I got deadlines to meet, I got writeups that I need to deliver. Why should I care about shared identity and empathy and understanding at work. We’re here to work.
Well, that’s true. We’re here to work. But that’s why you should care. The research shows that when people feel connected it makes them more productive, it makes them better decision-makers, it makes them more creative. And when you create cultures of connection it impacts organizations in five distinct ways that provide a powerful competitive advantage.
Number one, when people feel connected they’re better decision-makers, more creative. So, it helps in individual performance.
Secondly, when they feel connected to their culture they give their best efforts. So, it boosts employee engagement.
Third, when they feel connected they align their behavior with the leader’s goals so that more people are moving in the same direction rather than in different directions where there’s a lack of alignment.
The next benefit is they communicate better because they care. They’re willing to take a risk and share something with the boss that he or she may not want to hear. But they need to hear to make the best decisions. They care about the work of the group and they’ll speak up.
Finally, they also think about and take action and try to improve the work of the group. In other words, they contribute to innovation.
Those are five sources of competitive advantage that add up to a pretty powerful effect on the bottomline.
Every one of those points resonate with me. Better decision, that takes the pressure off of me. Better productivity, great. Best efforts, great. Communicate better, great, I’ll have fewer meetings where I have to adjudicate communication problems. They’ll be leaders, they’ll take action. All good. But why should I believe. I mean you’re asking me to take a big leap of faith to start embracing these recommendations in your book.
The reaction I have to the book, the leaders who understand this embrace it. Admiral Vernon Clark, the former Chief of the Navy wrote an endorsement for the book; it’s on the back cover. He understands priorities, he understands how people are wired. When he became Chief of the Navy in 2000 and within 18 months re-enlistment rates soared from 38% to 57%. You have the leaders who understand it.
The leaders who don’t understand it, you know, people have different sensitivities for connection. Some have a high need, some a low level. I’ve worked in those cultures where people have a low need. The engineering section of the Johnson Space Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, you’ll find a lot of scientists and engineers who are more task driven. What’s in it for them is, really, the scientific case. In the book there’s a whole chapter on the science of connection where I try to sum up the effects of connection versus feeling left out, unsupported or lonely which has a very bad effect on us from a biological standpoint. I tried to describe the research on that.
And then secondly I shifted and looked at the research on connection and organizations.
The third part of that chapter is how are we doing on connecting in organizations or in life outside of work. And the answer is not good.
That’s why I believe Americans are dysfunctioning, um, especially Americans under 50. We see the older generations not struggling with these issues as much. This is the Eisenhower generation, we’re getting up there in years. They’re doing okay. The younger generations are, because we’re more engaged in social media, we’ve got more interesting things to watch on TV and we’re working longer hours, all of those factors add up where we’ve squeezed out time for relationships in our life.
Let’s read one line from that testimonial from Vernon Clark. This is his last line and it’s so great. “This is more than a great read. Michael’s connection strategy is a game-changer for leaders.”
I want to encourage everyone listening to go buy a copy of Michael’s book. It’s a great case study, a profile, of Vernon Clark, Admiral, former Chief of Naval Operation, and how he turned around the recruiting in the Navy in a very short period of time with all the positive results in performance and savings. It’s a great read, go get the book and read about Vernon Clark among many others.
Now. You’ve helped many companies create their connection cultures. They’re all in different industries, growth stages, non-profits and for-profits. But I’m willing to bet they all share a lot in common. What’s the most important element they share in common as it relates to the connection culture?
Well, what they share is the same pattern of three factors in creating a culture of connection. I just call them vision, value, voice. Maybe a better way to describe them is when a leader communicates an in inspiring vision, values people and gives them a voice it gives them a connection. That’s when they give their best efforts, align their behavior, etc.
So, it’s kind of simple on the surface. What’s been interesting in our work is just that. There’s such a wide variety of ways that people connect and create a culture of connection whether it’s an Admiral in the U.S. Navy or France Hesselbine creating a connection culture with the Girl Scouts, Chris Winters, the headmaster at private school in Greenwich Connecticut creating a connection culture with faculty, staff and students. There’s just different approaches to this.
And that’s what we’ve been gathering for the past 12 years. How do we see leaders creating vision-values-voice but they do it in different ways. They have similar attitudes. They will some times use different language when they try to describe it and their behaviors can be very different. Individual behaviors and institutional behaviors. But they do have some things in common. They tend to fall under the three, what we call the 3-V Model of Leadership: Vision-Value-Voice.
Excellent. Now, when you talk to these leaders in creating connection cultures. Many of them are nodding their heads yes-yes-yes and they’re saying “Michael, you know you’re right. And I’m on board.” But ... What’s the but in their argument and how do you help them get past it.
Well. It’s, it’s um ...
That’s a mournful, painful ‘Well’ …
Well, I’ll tell you, my approach is to look for the leaders who believe in it and who I know will execute it. I work with them. I describe them in one of two ways. They’re leaders who care about people and care about results. And, that’s who I focus in working on.
When I go into sections, the engineering section of the Johnson Space Center or across town to MD Anderson Cancer Center where you’re working doctors and researchers we’ll spend half the day on the research and I’ll tell ‘em “Hey, I can keep going on this all day if you want. I can show you study after study. So unless you’re just irrational … If you’re rational, this research clearly shows it is rational to be intentional about creating connection. So, what are you going to do about it?”
I try to defang the irrational, their misperceptions about connection. Because maybe they don’t feel it as much. But others feel it. It also doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect on them from a subconscious level. Because we have a, our right brain hemisphere processes things on a sub-conscious level. We pick up how people are treating us in the culture. You see that clearly in the research. What happens when, uh, we feel threatened, even if it’s a sub-conscious threat. The body goes into a state of stress response. It sends blood, glucose and oxygen to the heart, the lungs, the thighs because preparing to flight of flee. But it takes those same resources from the brain, from the digestion system, so that we’re more prone to upset stomach, colitis, acid-reflux, digestive disorders like that. We’re more vulnerable to sickness and disease because it’s taking that blood and glucose and oxygen from our immune system. It’s also effects the reproductive system by the way. It has a profound effect on our bodies when we feel threatened and when we’re in a state of homeostasis so the body gets all the body systems get the blood, glucose, it needs to operate in a healthy sustainable way.
It’s the connection culture that provides the safety net to help us perform at the top of our game for a long period of time. Of course if that helps people who to perform at the top of their game then it helps organizations perform at the top of their game, as well.
It seems so obvious, even to this art major, that this data is so obvious if you’re just willing to look at it. I love all the scientific data, the research you’re talking about and the blood and glucose going to the thighs and it’s being drained from the head as you’re deciding whether to fight or flight across the boardroom conference table.
But if you’re the least bit observant the logic of employee engagement just makes sense. People that are happy, give. People that are happy, take risks, take initiative, they’re cooperative, patient, they go the extra mile.
I say this flippantly. But, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist but it’s so great that those who prefer data as opposed to intuition or anecdotes, now there’s so much compelling research that documents what we’re all experiencing around us.
In chapter two you go into detail about three elements that create connection. You just touched on them a minute ago. They are "Vision, Value and Voice." So, how do they all work together, mesh, to create a culture of connection?
Sometimes it helps to tell a quick story. Just an example. There’s some overlap. One practice I talk about in the book, the Knowledge Flow session, it really touches on Vision, Value and Voice. I probably shared this story with your listeners the last time we spoke but it was a long time ago.
The story I use, it resonates a bit and I’ve used in Europe where I teach workshops over there too, is just the story of the rock band U2. It’s really a fascinating story of four 14 and 15-year old boys who came together in the mid-70’s. And when they started they were not very good. They tended to scream more than sing. The bass player had never taken lessons and he couldn’t keep time. So there’s some serious problems with the band. And yet, they persisted and today they’ve received or been awarded more Grammy Awards than any band in history and they’ve surpassed the Rolling Stones, which is one of my favorite bands, with the highest revenue-producing concert tour in history.
If you look at those guys, they’re relatively healthy. They may still keep going for another decade or two.
It’s a pretty phenomenal story if you look back at their story you’ll see Bono who’s their lead singer and lyricists and he wouldn’t describe himself as their leader but if you observed the band he’s clearly a leader among equal partners in the band and he communicates an inspiring vision. Their music is about human rights and social justice and matters that are important to them. He says we are more than performers. As musicians salesmen traveling around the world selling our ideas that we believe in and these ideas are contained in the lyrics in our songs. We also try to influence those matters in our work outside of our music.
He values people in many ways. Rather than take the majority of the profits like most rockstars in megabands do he takes an equal split with the four band members and their manager. He also appreciates the positive contributions of his colleagues. He talks about how he’s a lousy guitar player and keyboard player which is a bit of an overstatement, I believe. Um, he says it’s because of these talented friends of his that they can bring music to life. But he would never want to leave because being around them makes him a better person.
And he’s been around them for 4 decades so that’s saying a lot. And you think of all the touring they do together so that’s a little difficult at times. They have almost a family-like culture. You also see it in how he’s helped and they’ve helped one another. When their drummer, Larry Mullen, his mother was hit and killed in car accident about a year after they’d formed the band Bono reached out and helped him through that. His mother had died a few years earlier. She’d had a sudden cerebral hemmorhage and passed away. When Edge, their lead guitar player, went through a divorce um, Bono and the guys were there to help him through that. When Adam Clayton developed a drug addiction, um, instead of throwing him overboard they adopted the motto of “we’re all going to get through this alive” and you just see, also in the way they make decisions. If someone strongly opposes a particular decision they won’t do it. Bono says it’s frustrating to do it like this. It takes more time; we have to work through our disagreements but we believe in the process. If everybody has a voice it keeps us together. And we produce better music. Certainly, the data shows that and they’re wildly successful.
You think of all those things, they create a sense of connection. You think of all those great rock bands. You think of Aerosmith or the Eagles, another one of my favorite bands. But, the Eagles had to stop performing for 14 years because they hated each other so much. It was really tragic, I loved the Eagles. They’re so awesome. Actually, there’s a great documentary on it by the way on Showtime. It’s a 3-hour documentary. We really see how their culture broke down.
Awright, let’s talk about football. That’s a segue. The best Division I football team last year was the Horned Frogs of TCU, Texas Christian University. Your book includes a wonderful endorsement by TCU’s Chancellor both for you, your book and your work. On the basis of that he’s announcing a new center, A Center for Connection Culture. How did this come about? What’s its future?
Well, TCU historically had a good culture. They have a low student-teacher ratio. They have what they call a “Student-Scholar Model” where they really look for professors who like to mentor students. If they don’t like to mentor students they don’t really belong at TCU. So, they have a great culture.
It’s not just the faculty, although the faculty have a huge effect on the students. It’s also the staff. It’s amazing to see how the staff reach out to the students. When freshmen come into the university within the first week they’re invited to the homes of, now this is a university of 10,000 students, but they’re invited into the homes of faculty and staff members.
There’s so many good things you could talk about at TCU. They’re very intentional about encouraging relationships. It’s very relevant when you look at the data. Higher education is struggling with student suicides, emotional health issues. Many of those issues are, the risks are diminished when you have a strong relational culture that helps people support through the struggles they have just they learn and grow. The struggles we all have in life. So, TCU wants to be intentional about creating the best connection culture in higher education and really being an example for others.
So, that’s what we formed the Center and we’re bringing education and training into different departments in the university and also bringing in different speakers who will speak on issues related to connection to show how important this is to life.
That’s so great. Again, congratulations on that.
Thank you, Zane. It’s really a joy to work on.
We first spoke almost five years ago regarding your first great book Fired Up or Burned Up. What’s changed since then? What’s the most promising trend you’ve seen over those five years in corporate America for employee engagement?
I’m starting to see more leaders who understand culture. Because, if you look at the data and since we’ve had employee engagement surveys for more than a decade the aggregate numbers have not changed. We still have roughly the same number of disengaged employees and actively disengaged employees.
And, so, I think that more leaders are seeing that this as an issue of culture. It can’t be solved by a quick program. There really has to be a systemic solution that requires training that effects people’s attitudes, language and behavior. There has to be feedback mechanisms like employee engagement surveys.
Now, a lot of people just implement employee engagement surveys and a quick training program. It just really wasn’t enough. You have to design interventions that help people with mentoring and coaching.
So, they’re moving to a systemic solution. It’s slow. But I’m encouraged to see more leaders who recognize and are doing that.
It’s only been a hundred years in creating a disengaged culture. It might take another year or two.
Before we go I need to give a shout-out to a mutual friend of ours. That’s Stephen Lynch of RESULTSdotcom. He asked me to tell you ‘hi.’ He’s in New Zealand now and we’re hoping to get him back up to the States real soon.
Thanks, Stephen, for stopping by.
Yeah, Stephen’s tremendous.
Now. Let’s say President Obama calls you. Matter of fact, that blinking line on your phone is his office. They said he’d like to meet with you in-between a few world crises, a round of golf and a pickup basketball game. You’re ushered into the Oval Office and he’s sitting behind his desk. After you shake hands, he says “Michael, the fabric of our country is unraveling and I’m interested in your three ideas to reinstill our nation’s culture of connection." What would you tell him?
I would tell him what I tell everyone which is ‘Focus on what you can change.’ Rather than creating a new government program to educate the country of the benefits of a new connection culture, much as I would benefit from that, I would say ‘Focus on the federal government.’ Creating, empowering, leaders in the federal government with the training, the systemic solutions to help them create connection cultures. If you do that, it will be a great example. It will help make our government more efficient, more effective and you’d be leading by example.
So focus, and I say the same thing in the context corporations: “Don’t worry about the CEO. You can’t change him or her. So focus on your team.” That’s what matters the most. It’s the culture that you’re living in day in and day out that has the greatest impact on you and that’s the one you can influence the most. So focus on you and what you can change and don’t worry about the rest.
Beautiful. That’s so great. Thank you.
"Leaders are readers." Jim Rohn says that and I just quote him. What are you reading these days, fiction or non?
Well, I’m reading two things.
One is Edmund Morris’ controversial book on Ronald Reagan called “Dutch” cause my daughter, actually, stayed up all night reading it. I thought “Wow! It must be really good if she stayed up all night reading it.” That’s really something. So, she recommended it. I’m really loving it, it’s a great book!
The second one is um, re-reading a classic. It’s Parker Palmer’s masterpiece called “Let Your Life Speak." It’s his story. The subtitle is "Listening for the Voice of Vocation." It’s really his story and wisdom about his journey to find what his life’s work was. And there’s, it’s beautiful writing, and there’s a lot of wisdom in the book. I highly recommend it to people who are trying to figure out just the direction in life. It’s a great book.
Michael, we gotta go. I hate to say this but I know you have a million things going. I promised a half-hour and I could talk to you for hours. I love your work. I love your book. You have great insights.
Where can people find you? Where can they follow you? Where are you next speaking?
Well, Zane, this is very appropriate cause I want you to contribute to the new site that we created called ConnectionCulture.com.And I love the piece you wrote about actions to boost employee engagement. I’d love to feature that on our site, too.
On our site we have a quiz people can take that will tell them what type of culture they work in whether it’s connection, disconnection or indifferent. I encourage people to go there, there’s a lot of a resources. We’ll bringing in contributors like you who have a lot to say about creating a connection culture.
Well, thank you for that. I look forward to contributing there. Thanks for the invitation.
You know, again, you hear my hesitating because we have to say goodbye. Your book’s great. Your site’s great. You’ve got a ChangeThis Manifesto out. You’ve got your ongoing series of 100 Connection Tips at your site Michael Lee Stallard. So, let’s talk again anytime you want but when have your next book come and I know it will be even greater. In the meantime Go Horned Frogs.
Yes. Go horned frogs.
Thank you Zane. I so appreciate your work and we’ll both try to make the workplace healthier, just more high-performance oriented.