Resilience is rooted in a culture of connection
Strong, violent winds from Hurricane Ian toppled many of Florida’s sturdy trees, exposing their roots. Because their root systems were not deep and wide enough to anchor the trees, they were vulnerable to gales, especially if the ground was too saturated with water. Trees with shallow, tight root systems tended to collapse; trees with deep and wide root systems were more likely to stay upright because their well-developed root systems made them resilient to cope with stress.
The strongest and most resilient trees have roots that are interconnected with the roots of other trees around them. I learned that trees with interconnected root systems have been shown to support each other, not only providing a strong supportive anchor against hurricane-force winds, but also moving nutrients from strong trees to troubled trees.
I am in awe of the medical professionals who have remained in the profession during the pandemic. Many are tired, but they are staying on their feet and doing the important work of meeting the health needs of people in their communities. Still, I worry about them. After studying the wellness and resilience of clinicians, the National Academy of Medicine recommended six essentials to support clinician well-being, one of which is to cultivate a culture of connection and support. While these elements come from the healthcare context, they are relevant to any organization that recognizes the seriousness of burnout and wants to take action to improve employee engagement and well-being. Because my expertise is in cultivating a culture of connection, and I believe this is the most urgent need right now, I will focus my comments on this element.
Consider your organization as a living and relational organism
There is a flip side to an article I wrote about how cultivating a culture of connection provides a extraordinary opportunity to win the talent war and it’s this: if leaders don’t take action to help reduce stress and improve social environments at work, people will crumble. The current high levels of stress and disconnection (loneliness and social isolation) in our society are going to have a catastrophic human cost.
We need to change our view of organizations. The people who make up our organizations are not cogs in a machine, replaceable and expendable parts, whatever the product. If they are treated in a way that makes them feel controlled, unimportant, undervalued, or invisible, many will struggle because of a lack of connection. Their attitude, energy and productivity will suffer.
In my mind, I see the human cost of less than healthy working crops as a forest with many fallen trees. Like a tree, we need to be in a healthy environment where our roots can grow deep and wide so that we can thrive and thrive. To be truly engaged, we also need to feel connected and supported by the “trees” around us.
Research over the past few decades clearly shows that the social environment we find ourselves in has a profound effect on us. From a biological point of view, the link improves the performance of the cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems. Matthew Lieberman, a leading neuroscientist, refers to connection as a “superpower” because it makes humans smarter, happier and more productive.
In contrast, research has shown that disconnection is unhealthy for individuals. Loneliness is associated with lower cognitive performance. loneliness can undermine executive control and self-regulation so that we are more impulsive. It is associated with substance abuse, depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. Given these results, it follows that the researchers found that greater loneliness leads to weaker task, team role and relationship performance.
Allow others to see you
In our American culture that values individualism, we are reluctant to show what might be perceived as weakness or a burden on others with our problems, so we often go on alone. I used to think that way earlier in my career, but now I know better. Fixing our broken work cultures may require a shift in our own mindset. We must intend to develop supportive relationships that go beyond a superficial level.
There are many ways to do this. I would recommend starting by having someone or a group of people that you can share some of the positives and negatives that you encounter each week. Simply sharing our positive and negative experiences calms our nervous system and shifts brain activity to the cortex where we make rational decisions. In other words, if we allow others to see what we think and feel, we feel better and we make better decisions.
As I explained in Culture of Connection: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding, Mutual empathy is a powerful connector made possible by the mirror neurons in our brain. When we attune to the emotions of others, it makes them feel connected to us. When we attune to their positive emotion, it reinforces the positive emotion they feel. When we adapt to their pain, it decreases the pain they feel. In other words, the “highs” are higher when others join you in your joy or excitement and the “lows” are lower when others are with you in times of pain or loss.
Jason Pankau, a friend of mine, once told me that he considers intimacy an in-to-me-see. This is what we need to do regularly: allow others to see inside of us. These close friendships are those in which you feel a level of trust that allows you to be even more open.
I hope these thoughts I have shared will encourage you to think about your own “root system” and how you will strengthen your bonds with your co-workers as well as your family and friends in your community.
Why not take the first step and reach out to a few people and ask them to meet you for coffee or for a walk? As you get to know them, ask them about their ups and downs from the past week and share your own. Listen carefully. Here’s an important tip: don’t try to solve their problems unless they ask for your advice. By engaging in the simple act of talking, you will develop and deepen the invisible root system that will make you and those you connect with smarter, happier, more productive, and more resilient.
Michael Lee Stallardpresident and co-founder of Login Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders build human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals, teams, and organizations. He is the author of “Culture of connection” and “Inflamed or burnt.” To receive a free 24-page “90+ Ways to Connect” e-book, sample chapters from “Connection Culture” and Stallard’s monthly Connection Culture newsletter, register here.
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