The Science of Connection

| By Editorial Staff

BrainOne of our favorite movie characters of all time is Billy McMahon from The Internship, played with the inimitable sincerity by Vince Vaughn. Sure, the movie is about how a bunch of misfits win the day, but in the process Vaughn demonstrates the true nature of leadership – in particular because his character excels at connecting people together.

The story also demonstrates how important it is to make workers feel like they are part of something bigger, with lines purportedly from Google stating that employees in Customer Service and Sales are as vital to the company’s success as its programmers. The truth for any company is that every person on campus should feel valuable, not just because it’s true but because it impacts company morale even more than free food or Quidditch championships.

People may scoff at Billy’s type of Chatty Cathy persona that spreads magic words like a rainbow and makes us want to jump up and participate in a silly cheer. Why would anybody want to be on Billy’s team? Is it really so great for an organization to hire these kinds of managers?

Yes, as a matter of fact, it is.

A 2010 article in Psychology Today tells us that, “Although we like to think of ourselves as mythic individualists, we are fundamentally social organisms.” At the time of its writing there were more than 27 million Americans living alone, with executive transfers “a staple of corporate life, turning the upwardly mobile into a new species of migrant worker.” Not only do workers want that connection Billy offers, more than ever before they need to feel connected.

UCLA professor and Social Cognitive Neuroscience cofounder Matthew Lieberman tells us that leaders can benefit by understanding our social needs rather than ignoring them. Lieberman and other researchers have discovered that “feeling liked and respected in the workplace activates the brain’s reward system in the same way that financial compensation does.”

To be clear, not every manager needs to be Gung Ho Gary to be effective, and not every workplace is a cutting edge Google.

Consider the story of a cleaning crew at a small university. You’d think performance would be unimportant when we’re only talking about mops and brooms, but theirs had slowly declined to the point that people had turned a blind eye to the dust and dirt all around them. Enter a supervisor who understood the business of management and within a few months, the rate of staph infections on that campus decreased by two-thirds. That’s a heck of a performance report.

Needless to say, this manager’s team is not only incredibly proud of their accomplishments; they’re keen to show up at work each day. This is in spite of the fact that they now put forth far more effort than had ever been required of them in the past.

The manager succeeded by demonstrating two important leadership traits required to connect to employees. According to Sunnie Giles, an organizational scientist and trainer of executives, these are strong ethics, and trusting workers to self-organize.

“Strong ethics and morals,” she says, “are a universal value…because it is about safety, a basic human need.” When employees know their manager values hard work and honesty, they know this is a person who will go to bat for them. It gives them the incentive to wake up each day and get to work.

To Gile’s second point, the cleaning crew manager exemplifies the difference between engagement versus micromanaging; his employees determine how they accomplish their tasks and in what order. Whenever one of them needs training, they receive it quickly in a matter-of-fact way that preserves their dignity.

This is similar to Vince Vaughn’s take on modern technological leadership, in spite of the fact that his character is clueless about some of the day-to-day tasks of the programmers and his understanding of debugging is laughable. The important lesson is that his respect for each individual on the team wins them over. He demonstrates aptly that there is never a need to employ a condescending attitude.

According to Giles, “Research has repeatedly shown that empowered teams are more productive and proactive, provide better customer service, and show higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment to their team and organization.”

So no matter what group you’re leading, give them a sense of connection and belonging. When they know they’re an integral component of something bigger than themselves, job satisfaction will increase along with performance metrics.