11/05/2014 02:27 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Breaking Through the Plexiglass for a Real Connection



What's the role of connection in the modern organization? Some might argue that there isn't one - it's just a touchy feely idea which has no place in a "serious business." On the other hand, what we know about serious business today is that it couldn't be any higher stakes or higher stress. Executives make million dollar decisions, manage unforgiving Boards, and unwind gnarly personnel issues daily, yet they are also increasingly isolated and unable to find high quality counsel and connection.

Particularly in times of stress, our ancient "fight or flight" system, the amygdala, goes on alert for any sign of danger. Meaningful connections with others soothe the nervous system and help snap us out of unconscious attack mode. For example, each time I arrive home from one of my weekly business trips, I am unknowingly poised for a fight. The accumulated stress of the week coupled with an acute desire to be home makes me irritable and totally disconnected. My husband's brilliant technique for talking me off the ledge is to make fun of me (yes, it's counterintuitive, I know). In response to my "Why are all the plants dead? Is it too much to ask for you to water them?" he answers "It's tough to transition home, isn't it?" His perceptive statement of what's really going on diffuses the situation, makes us both laugh and transitions me home, just where I want to be.

The challenge in the workplace is that there are a thousand factors contributing to the rampant disconnection we have from one another. And meetings, which are supposed to be a literal meeting of the minds, are the worst offenders. Our research on the meeting experience in large organizations suggests that meetings drive frustration, longer workdays, and lower engagement. They do little if anything, to build connection.

Virtual meetings exacerbate the problem even further because it's as if we're talking to each other through plexiglass. Or we're pretending to talk to each other, but actually IM'ing other colleagues, checking Facebook, and researching restaurants for this weekend.

Yet recent studies (and our own hearts) tell us that we're undermining personal well-being AND professional performance. When people work in business environments where they are free to express warmth and connection, they report higher job satisfaction, more commitment to the organization, and are more accountable for their performance.

So how do we get ourselves back in the habit of connecting? At the recent Wisdom in Business conference in New York, Diane Poole Heller led the attendees through an amazing exercise. She had us pick an unknown partner and have a connected conversation with them by simply looking into their eyes, listening attentively, and directing all of our attention and energy to being present. The other person could talk about anything for 3 minutes and the partner merely listened. Then we swapped. We went back and forth this way for about 12 minutes and in that time, saw how quickly you can forge a deep connection and human bond with someone else, even a stranger. There is connective magic in being present and fully listening.

Let's apply that to the plexiglass of virtual meetings. How can you form a deep human bond with someone separated by time zones, unmuted background noise, and half-hearted video conference participation?

It's actually fairly simple...
  • Be in the conversation you're in
  • Have compassion for yourself and others around the challenge of staying engaged in a virtual environment
  • Do meaningful work together, and
  • Celebrate your successes and failures
  • Consider having an occasional virtual coffee or happy hour - where connecting is the primary goal

If you recognize human connection as a success strategy for managing stress in challenging environments, you're much more likely to value it and seek it out - even in a virtual environment.