An interview with Michael Lee Stallard, global expert on the power of connection – and why it’s fundamental for your leadership practice

When you meet a globally renowned expert on connection and leadership and find that you connect immediately… Well, I reckon that’s a great start!

That’s how I felt when I met Michael Lee Stallard last week over Zoom. He practices what he preaches. Our conversation was full of warmth, connection, humour and passion about the power of connection in leadership.

Who is Michael Lee Stallard?

Michael is a globally-recognised thought leader on how to create and maintain cultures of connection that help teams and organisations’ thrive. He’s the co-founder and president of leadership training and consulting firm Connection Culture Group.

Not only do we share complementary ideas about the world of work, Michael is also the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work and Fired UP or Burned Out – which has an obvious connection to my own book on burnout.

Michael generously contributed an endorsement for my book, Beyond Burnoutand has taken the time to talk to me – and The Leaders Digest community – about his own book Connection Culture.

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Suzi: Just how powerful is connection?

Michael: Connection is not just a nice thing to have in your personal and professional life. Research supports that it is necessary; we are hardwired to connect. Without sufficient connection, we will be dysfunctional. Human connection is needed at work for people to thrive and give their best efforts.

Connection is powerful. The power comes from how feeling connected makes individuals more productive, more creative, more energetic, and more effective. In fact, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman describes human connection as a superpower. The power of connection also benefits organisations through improved employee engagement, strategic alignment, quality of decisions, innovation, agility, and adaptability. Combined, these boost performance and competitive advantage.

Suzi: What are the dangers of a culture where connection seems elusive?

Michael: Working in an environment of disconnection is detrimental to your emotional health and your physical health. It may even slow down or derail your career trajectory. When employees are unable to work up to their potential, their organisations may peg them as mediocre and thus limit their opportunities for advancement.

A deficiency of connection negatively affects individual employee engagement and execution. Employees who feel controlled, marginalised, or treated like a means to an end won’t be able to do their best work and may not want to. Connection stimulates the knowledge flow that is essential to optimal decision-making and maintaining a robust internal marketplace of ideas that fuels innovation. A connection culture cultivates an openness that facilitates connecting ideas and knowledge to spark innovation. It also provides relational support so that people feel safe to take the risks required to innovate.

Suzi: Do you believe there is a link between connection and burnout?

Michael: Yes. Connection and resilience activities (like adequate sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, gratitude, and time off) together give us the energy we need to deal with stressors in our lives - like concern about contracting Covid-19, economic uncertainty, heavy workloads, racism, etc. If our energy is insufficient to cope with our collective stress load, we become exhausted. If exhaustion persists, it eventually leads to burnout.

We know that greater social connection makes us more resilient to cope with the stress load. We also know that a connection deficit negatively affects our own health and wellbeing, the health of organisations, and the health of society. Connection produces energy while also reducing the pain of stress, improving sleep quality and strengthening our willpower to eat healthily and exercise.

I have observed how the increasing pace and stress of life threaten to squeeze out time for supportive, life-giving relationships, and endeavours. And now we have a convergence of factors—high stress, the current loneliness epidemic, and increased social isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic—that make boosting connection an even more urgent matter.

By showing people the need to be in cultures of connection and how they can cultivate connection in their circles of influence or leadership, my book will help them cope well with stress, protect their emotional and physical health, and set them up to give their best performances at work so that they are well-positioned to thrive.

Suzi: Has anything really surprised you in your research into connection?

Michael: As I dug into the research across numerous fields of study, I was fascinated to learn what goes on in our bodies when we feel connected or disconnected, some of which we may not even be aware of.

For example, the science shows that our brain and other body systems are designed to operate in a state of balance. They need the right amounts of hormones, blood, glucose, and oxygen to perform at their best. When we feel disconnected, unsupported, left out, or lonely, our bodies alter the levels of hormones and reallocate blood, glucose, and oxygen to the “fight or flight” systems, in preparation for needing to respond quickly.

The body’s natural stress response is good if we are facing a short-term threat such as an attack. However, working in cultures that create constant stress in these ways can cause our bodies to become stuck in this response, which makes us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, burnout and addiction.

Suzi: Can you give us three tips for fostering a culture of connection in any organisation?

Michael: First, communicate a vision for the future and what you aspire to achieve that unites and inspires people.

Second, demonstrate that you value people as individuals and don’t treat them as a mere means to an end. Take time to get to know about their life outside of work, learn their career aspirations, learn what helps them be their best self and do their best work, and help them learn and grow.

Third, give people a voice by seeking their opinions and ideas when possible then considering what they share.

I sum this up as an easy-to-remember formula: Vision + Value + Voice = Connection. There are many practices to boost vision, value and voice that I share in my book.

As Michael and I both point out in our books, as leaders we can no longer leave connection to chance in our teams and organisations. We must purposefully build cultures of connection if our people and organisations are to reach their full potential.

So do yourself and your team a favour, buy a copy of his book Connection Culture – and while you’re at it, pop Beyond Burnout into your shopping cart too! Your team will thank you for it.

And thank YOU, Michael, for talking to us about the power of connection.

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