Back in early 2013, I was newly out of college and I had just landed my dream job at a world-renowned university. Despite not actually understanding much of what the job entailed, I was delighted to be joining a team who directly made a difference in the experience of thousands of employees.
Little did I know the influence that job change would have on my career and, truthfully, my life overall.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend an evening with five of my colleagues who were part of the team back in 2013. We’ve all since gone our separate ways, whether well-deserved retirements, exciting solo endeavours, or new career progressions. Despite the many years since we last shared a physical space, there was abundant liveliness and levity as we swiftly caught up on lost time. Running through life and work updates, we remarked on how quickly the younger ones in our families have grown, disclosed hurdles the past couple of years have presented, and inquired about hobbies (including pandemic-acquired chickens!) and projects abound.
Much of what I’ve accomplished in my professional life is direct result of the passion, expertise, and generosity of these ladies. They welcomed me in, shared their wisdom, ignited passion, and encouraged the use of my strengths. These ladies introduced me to positive psychology and coaching, provided ample evidence for how to care deeply about one’s work and each other, and inspired me to be who I am today.
I often wonder where I would be today without those relationships.
Relationships are foundational to our wellbeing. Particularly in these times of greater social isolation and loneliness, the connections we have with others matters even more. A recent Harvard Business Review article underscored inherent issues with workplaces approaching wellbeing as an individual issue to be solved through self-care, thus undermining efforts and producing even greater loneliness, mental health challenges, and disconnection.
The authors posit that by replacing self-care with taking care of each other, adversity can be acknowledged as a collective challenge and people can begin to see the common humanity reflected in their experience.
While the call for a shifted focus certainly resonates with me, I don’t believe we need to entirely replace the acts of self-care. There’s still immense value in self-care and, from my experience, it’s when I’m in meaningful connection that I have the capacity and strength to care for myself. It’s almost like a precursor. When I feel seen and cared for, I have the energy to prioritize my wellbeing. In the absence of connection I find it even more difficult to get outside, to prioritize sleep, or to access creativity, and I typically end up wallowing in what can best be described as mild despair.
A pivotal paper published in 2021 demonstrated the value of several positive psychology practices in buffering, boosting, and building mental health. While focused on how these practices could address mental health concerns during the pandemic, unfortunately our days navigating psychological distress and loneliness prevail and the recommendations still stand. One pillar the authors explored was the role of High-Quality Connections (HQCs), where being in meaningful connection, whether momentary or lasting, can positively influence resilience, collaboration, and psychological safety.
For many years, I’ve been captivated by the relationships we form in the workplace and their influence on wellbeing, belonging, and positive identity development. The works of Jane Dutton, Emily Heaphy, Monica Worline, and other scholars have been fundamental to my practice and research. I can’t tell you how often my nose was stuck in texts and articles on the subject, and it was the reason why I pursued my graduate research on understanding the relationships that form during group coaching programs. I knew there was a reason why being coached in a group made such a difference, and believed exploring the interactions between people and their perceptions of the relationships would shine a light on the magic that occurs.
Later this month, I’ll be visiting the University of Michigan to share findings from my research at the Positive Organizational Scholarship Research Conference. I’m deeply honoured to share space with researchers and practitioners who care deeply about what makes organizations and the individuals within them flourish.
So what are High-Quality Connections?
First of all, they are noted by three distinct experiences:
A sense of positive regard, where one feels seen and cared for. When in a HQC, you feel a sense of respect and appreciation for who you are.
A sense of vitality. During and following the interaction, you may notice a lift in your energy. Perhaps the weight on your shoulders seems a bit more bearable and you have resolve to move forward.
And lastly, a sense of mutuality. This means the interaction is not one-sided. Both, or all, people involved are contributing and engaging in the connection.
When HQCs exist, they allow for those involved to express more emotions (both positive and negative), experience greater resiliency within the relationship (so when there’s turbulence, the relationship can endure), and gain openness to new ideas and learnings.
Jane Dutton and Monica Worline promote using these insights as a lens from which to understand our interactions, whether brief encounters or more enduring relationships. It is from this lens that we can assess our current interactions and make shifts to strengthen the relationships. Each time I bring people together, whether for group coaching, a team meeting, or leadership development, I pay deep attention to the kinds of connections that are occurring. I wonder, “Am I creating the conditions for relationships to form? For people to be seen and heard? How are all the voices in the room being included?”. For me, the primary focus is creating the environment in which people have the ability to experience high-quality connections, as I know they’ll then be far more likely to learn and be open to new ideas.
Looking back to those essential relationships I formed in 2013, I can identify the prevalence of high-quality connections. Through the ways I felt seen and like a valued contributor, I became motivated to grow and learn.
Today, I am in a new organization and surrounded by yet another group of people who inspire and motivate me beyond measure. In acknowledging this, I recognize how truly fortunate I am. In my mind, what makes a difference is the practice “connection before content”, which is adopted in every interaction and team meeting. Because of this, I have been amazed by the almost healing nature of our meetings. I often find them generative and lifegiving, particularly in those moments when I’ve been troubled by the state of the world.
We must establish a personal connection with each other.
Connection before content.
Without relatedness, no work can occur.
- Peter Block
It’s in these rituals that I and others benefit from the powerful impacts of high-quality connections. Not only are the intentions explicitly stated by leaders, it’s understood and adopted by all. Each person makes a choice to be seen and engage with others in earnest, fostering spirals of positive emotions and wellbeing.
Bringing this into practice
Assess your interactions and relationships. When you view them through the HQC lens, what do you see? If you notice an absence of one of the factors, consider what you can do to create more of what you desire in those connections.
Practice your presence. The emphasis on mutuality means HQCs can’t occur when we’re distracted. Quieten notifications, block the time, and actively listen with both your eyes and your ears.
Show appreciation for others. Acknowledge and encourage the individual gifts and strengths that each person brings.
Establish rituals for connections on your team. Create the conditions for HQCs to form whenever you gather. This includes moments for play, as advocated by Dutton and Worline, integrated alongside the work you do.
Foster relational pauses. Be intentional about inquiring and sharing more of the human experience in our challenges. It’s when teams turn toward each other in times of adversity that they can access greater resiliency.
I believe High-Quality Connections can be a powerful driver of belonging, whether in momentary or lasting relationships. As Carl Sagan once wrote, “For creatures as small as we the vastness is only bearable through love”.
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Relationships appear as central determinants of several wellbeing models, such as:
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). Self‐determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well‐being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68‐78. https://doi.org/10.1037//0003‐066X.55.1.68
Keyes, C. L. M. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 43(2), 207-222. https://doi.org/10.2307/3090197
Ryff, C.D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological wellbeing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069‐1081. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022‐3522.214.171.1249
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. Free Press.
“Stop framing wellness problems around self-care” by Michelle A. Barton, Bill Kahn, Sally Maitlis, and Kathleen M Sutcliffe. https://hbr.org/2022/04/stop-framing-wellness-programs-around-self-care
Waters, L., Algoe, S. B., Dutton, J., Emmons, R., Fredrickson, B. L., Heaphy, E., Moskowitz, J. T., Neff, K., Niemiec, R., Pury, C., & Steger, M. (2021). Positive psychology in a pandemic: Buffering, bolstering, and building mental health. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 17(3), 303-323. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2021.1871945
Dutton, J. E., & Heaphy, E. D. (2003). The power of high-quality connections. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 263-278). Berrett-Koehler.
Stephens., J. P., Heaphy, E. D., & Dutton, J. E. (2011). High-quality connections. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), Handbook of positive organizational scholarship (pp. 385–399). Oxford University Press.
Cameron, K. & Spreitzer, G. (2012). What is positive about positive organizational scholarship? In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (pp. 1‐14). New York: Oxford University Press.
Dutton, J.E., Worline, M.C. & Schmid, T. (2022): High-Quality Connections: A Hidden Resource for Human Thriving and Collaboration. Organisationsentwicklung: Zeitschrift für Unternehmensentwicklung und Change Management, 22 (01): 26-30.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13(2), 172-175.
Barton, M. A., & Kahn, W. A. (2019). Group resilience: The place and meaning of relational pauses. Organization Studies, 40(9), 1409-1429. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840618782294
Stephanie-- thanks for this wonderful write-up. In these times where collaboration and coordination are so key to all aspects of work, there are additional reasons why we should care about these connections. Thanks for your useful advice!
What a brilliant article. Connections are the glue that has held me together in difficult times but more importantly as I grow in my becoming. In my younger years I did not make that connection. I appreciate your insight and cultivation of resources. Thank you for sharing.