Making People Better at Work, Part Two - High-Quality ConnectionsFeb 04, 2021
Do the people you work with leave you feeling energized? Or do you feel depleted after a day of work with others?
High-Quality Connections (HQC) are interactions that create energy. That energy is contagious.
When we observe energy in nature, we see a symbiotic relationship. We see a cycle of consumption, using, and then giving back. Energy is being exchanged rather than destroyed. HQCs build and accelerate this type of symbiotic relationship at work.
Energy is a critical but limited resource that enables excellence in individuals, teams, and organizations. While it is limited, it is also renewable. Every interaction we have has the capacity to create or deplete this vital energy.
Interactions can be short-term and momentary, like an exchange walking through the hallway.
They can be long-term and ongoing, like working on a project team where the collision of ideas generates excitement and engagement.
Research has shown that when HQCs are present, they broaden thinking, heighten learning, and build resilience.
On the other side of the ‘energy’ continuum are Low-Quality Connections (LQC). We might think of LQCs as black holes that absorb all the light in the system without returning anything!
You might remember a LQC experience and the toxicity it created. These experiences can leave us feeling as if an energy vampire has swooped in to drain us. An LQC instantly creates feelings of incompetence, worthlessness, and diminished psychological safety. Repeated experience of LQCs gradually destroys the ability to learn, show initiative, and take risks.
When our energy is depleted, we turn inward for protection and sensemaking. We take on a second job - what psychologists call “motive work” - trying to figure out why someone would treat us this way. LQCs create a wake of destruction, where a series of everyday acts that communicate mistrust or disrespect are just as damaging as a major emotional blow up.
So what is part of a HQC?
When individuals are asked about their experience of HQC, they report three things:
Sense of Vitality - feeling energized in the connection
Positive Regard - feeling known and loved or being respected and cared for
Mutuality - mutual vulnerability and responsiveness as individuals experience the full participation and engagement in the connection
In my research, these three themes came out very strongly. There is an excitement and an energy when discussing these types of exchanges. The individual was willing to expend energy in the connection because they were also getting energy back.
Another lens is to look at the elements that are part of an HQC. Three things were found:
Connectivity - the level of openness to new ideas and influences
Tensility - the connection’s ability to bend and withstand strain and to function in a variety of circumstances
Emotional Carrying Capacity - expression of more emotion, both positive and negative
My research participants all shared HQC stories that expressed being open to ideas and influence, identifying a variety of circumstances including moral or ethical dilemmas, and an ability to express positive and negative emotions.
Feeling good is wonderful of course. But are there any tangible benefits?
Yes, there are. The benefits of HQCs are found at the individual, team, and organizational level.
Individuals tend to be more satisfied, committed, and attached to the organization.
Teams experience greater learning and creativity, and are more flexible and adaptive.
Organizations benefit from a greater capacity for cooperation and collaboration, and their customers/suppliers tend to be more attached to the organization.
Furthermore, HQCs help minimize impression management, cognitive and collaborative overload, and disengagement.
Impression Management - with HQCs individuals feel a sense of mutuality and positive regard. They build trust and psychological safety. When they can express themselves both positively and negatively, they feel cared for. While a great deal of impression management occurs in LCQs, in HQC, it is reduced or non-existent.
Cognitive & Collaborative Overload - HQCs generate greater psychological safety and trust, which leads to increasing cooperation, personal growth and performance. When individuals are cooperating, it expands their thinking and creates conditions that increase their complexity of thinking as both parties are open to new ideas and influences. This has implications for leadership development and innovation. HCQs also increase the capacity to be adaptive and resilient.
Disengagement - The research is pretty clear. When HQCs are a central part of work, everyone feels more connected and committed - employees, suppliers, and customers.
Sounds great, but how do you do it?
We own or design workplaces. We aren’t responsible for this. It is our managers’ and our teammates' responsibility. What has it got to do with workplace design or workplace operations?
A lot, as a matter of fact. Because the way you design and run the workspace significantly impacts on how ‘participants’ view their role and routines.
Roles - the function we play when we occupy a particular position in a social world. A set of expectations about how we should behave and what we are held accountable to.
Routines - repeated, recognizable ways of doing activities. You might think of them as organizational habits or practices.
To illustrate this, let me share a story.
When I first became an entrepreneur I joined a co-working space. It was beautiful. Everything was open. There were cubicle stations, two long tables, couches to sit on, a few games to play, phone booths, etc. Basically, everything was in one big rectangular box.
My ‘welcome’ to the space involved someone walking me around, telling me where the things were and asking me to pick a cubicle station. I was not introduced to any other people.
I quickly picked up on the subtle cues that explained my ‘role’ and what the ‘routines’ were. I observed that everyone was really working in their own little ‘spot’. If anyone happened to sit in ‘their spot’, a few long glances covertly informed them of their transgression.
I don’t have special antenna that made me notice this. I just did what all humans do. As sense making animals we are all exquisitely tuned to responding to social cues.
The workplace had been designed to facilitate fluid movement from cubicle to couch to the long tables. However, fluid movement wasn’t really the ‘rules’. Owning a personal spot was. And because everything was open, everybody saw everything, silently enforcing the static reality.
It also became clear that my ‘role’ was to quietly do my work. Phone conversations had to be taken in a phone booth or spoken in a whisper. Silence was golden.
No one told me this. It was just the behavior I observed. I quickly learned that my role was to go about my work, not to chat with or disturb anyone, and only consume the few resources granted to me.
The introductory welcome was focused solely on the resources I was allowed to consume and those I was not allowed to consume. Interpersonal relationships were an irrelevance.
Now let’s imagine what might be possible if we looked at using roles and routines to build HQC in this co-working space.
How could we redesign the role of co-workspace participants to foster more HQCs? We could start by building in help, respect, trust, and play.
Helping - we would provide a list of who to contact if you have a problem; we would ask ‘regulars’ to put their name and branding on their cubicles; we would create spaces for deep thinking and for collaborative work in separate areas so the need for silence and energy wouldn’t clash
Respecting - we would let the ‘regulars’ know that a new person is joining and encourage them to join us for welcoming lunch on their first day; we would know why each participant had joined the co-workspace and make sure that appropriate facilitating resources are readily available
Trusting - we would host a Monday Morning Mayhem where participants can talk about any challenges they are facing and offer each other support; we could create a thank you wall to acknowledge how fellow coworking members help one another find solutions to problems
Playing - we would host a weekly lunch to not only provide a break from work but to promote discussion; we would design weekly contests of play (i.e. to actually use that pool table we put into the workspace); we would organize a volunteer effort
There are many ways that we can use our staff, physical space, and resources to design the role of co-workspace participants.
Warning: If you don’t architect it, it will emerge. What emerges may not be very energizing!
How could we redesign routines in a co-working space to foster more HQCs?
Firstly, look at the routine of welcoming because first moments matter! The way we welcome someone is core to our values and what we privilege. It helps build connections, leaves new individuals feeling capable, and builds the potential for collaboration, cooperation and community. Rather than generate feelings of isolation and limited resources, as in the coworking space I experienced, a welcoming routine might generate feelings of community, respect, trust, and play. Like this one.
Welcome to Entrepreneur Rockstars is a fictitious example of what could be.
Welcome to the Entrepreneur Rockstars. When someone joins they get a recycling bin filled with goodies.
Community - a list of people that can help, a refillable water bottle and coffee mug with their name on it, a few dollars to use in the vending machine, and the KEY person you have to meet this first week (psst ask them about xxx)
Respect - a fun picture either saying we are glad you are here OR sharing the amazing things the newbie is doing in the world; ask them to post in their crucible so that other rockstars can stop by to meet them
Trust - Share 3 key improvements you have made the past month from member suggestions; tell them how to submit suggestions; share stories of how co-workers helped each other solve problems (you aren’t going to believe how helpful your co-workers are, Kismat helped Carson find $100,000 in savings!)
Play - a set of cards with playful activities (i.e. ask Kevin about how to avoid getting drenched in the kitchen, ask Mary about the latest tech gadgets, ask Pedro the story behind xxx - you’ll thank us for the laugh) and date/time of the next game of PIG pool.
We spend a good percentage of our waking hours at work, where we are either energized or depleted through the connections we experience with others. In the short-term, these effects show up in individual performance and organizational outcomes - either good or bad. In the long-term, these effects leave lasting traces on our bodies and health - either good or bad.
HQCs create wellbeing in a number of ways
Organisations - enhanced cooperation; greater attachment of employees, customers, suppliers; increased adaptability; repeat business and lower cost of goods sold
Team - better learning, more adaptive, more creative
Individuals - broader thinking, reduced negative arousal, heightened learning, builds resilience, enhanced self-image, increased cooperation, improved psychological / physiological health; job satisfaction, involvement, commitment; lower role conflict, ambiguity and overload; greater organizational citizenship
Do you want to be an Energizer? Or a Vampire?
Article: Fostering High-Quality Connections
Academic paper: (PDF) High-quality Connections
Websites/Blogs: High Quality Connections
Marcia Ryan Channel: Marcia Ryan
Read Part One of this series - Work is Killing Us
Read Part Two of this series - The Diseased Organisational Experience
Read Part Three of this series - Work Sucks! Escape Attempts and Coping Methods
Read Part Four of this series - Making People Better at Work, Part One - Salutogenesis
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