Courage, growth, connection, compassion, and curiosity.
These five values are the heartbeat of Transitions Coaching and guide our interactions with each other and with our clients. Over the next few months, we’re taking a deeper dive into each of our values to explore how they also emerge in leadership.
Professional connections, personal connections.
Virtual connections, in-person connections. A lot of us have the tendency to categorize our relationships, thinking of them only in a certain context.
But when we strip away that context and set aside the circumstances that influence our interactions with each other, relationships really boil down to the same thing: human connection.
Over the last couple of years, when many of us experienced increased isolation, the importance of human connection became extremely evident. Even self-professed introverts (me!) acknowledged the need for such connection, recognizing that the bonds we form with others help us feel seen, heard, and valued. They build trust and foster a sense of belonging. They fulfill very basic human needs, and in business, they can drive greater effectiveness and success.
But truly meaningful connections are not easy to create—possibly because we’re often inclined to approach them in the wrong way.
Early in our careers, we spend time getting to know our co-workers, expanding our circles, and growing our “networks.”
We scroll through profiles, send requests, and create connections with just a few clicks. And, without a doubt, these connections are valuable. They often open doors and introduce us to new opportunities.
But oftentimes, these connections can be superficial and surface-level. The context in which we’ve built them might even lead us in the wrong direction, prompting us to evaluate our relationships based on what they can do for us. Can befriending this person position me for a promotion? Can reaching out to this former co-worker get me a foot in the door for the role I want at his company?
It’s difficult to imagine relationships with such ulterior motives as truly meaningful connections.
In the context of leadership, building meaningful connections is a critical competency to one’s overall effectiveness. When I entered my first leadership role years ago, I didn’t see it this way—I viewed it as more of a liability to my success than a superpower. I was more focused on maintaining what I viewed as a necessary separation between personal and professional than on building meaningful connections. I tried to keep members of my team at arm’s length, making sure I was viewed as their “manager” and not their “friend.” I didn’t recognize it at the time, but by staying away from building meaningful connections, I was inadvertently neglecting some of the most important traits of effective leadership:
STRONG LISTENING SKILLS
Listening seems like a simple skill to hone, but many of us are notoriously bad at it. Just think of how many times you’ve heard your partner or kids say, “You’re not listening to me!” In most cases, distraction is to blame. So many things are running through our minds; it’s no wonder we have trouble being present in the moment. But another common mistake I’ve seen leaders make (and that I’m guilty of myself) is approaching conversations with a motive.
It happens often at work, whether we want to get a leg up in a negotiation or just an update on a critical project. We ask leading questions instead of learning questions. We make assumptions about the other person’s meaning. We tune them out while we’re rehearsing what we’ll say next. These tendencies prevent us from hearing what someone is really saying—and feeling. And without that understanding, it’s impossible to make a truly meaningful connection.
This is a trait that a lot of leaders overlook, but it’s the trait most necessary to our learning and growth. It helps us open our minds, explore, and uncover new possibilities. It’s also our most effective tool when it comes to building strong connections.
I haven’t seen a better description of curiosity than in this article from Forbes that describes it as an “elite” communication skill. When we model curiosity for our teams, when we ask questions and are truly interested in their answers, we unlock greater engagement and trust. We create an environment in which people feel safe expressing their thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and that sort of culture can breed creativity, problem-solving, and innovation.
There’s no denying that the pandemic shone a brighter spotlight on the necessity of empathy in leadership. People struggled—on so many levels—and failure to show compassion and understanding was many a leader’s undoing. Research shows that a leader’s lack of empathy can contribute to declines in innovation, engagement, retention, and inclusivity.
Empathy comes more naturally to some than to others, but I’ve learned you can begin to build greater empathy by asking two questions: 1) What would I be thinking if I were in this person’s shoes? (cognitive empathy), and 2) What would I be feeling if I were them? (emotional empathy). Pausing to reflect on those two simple questions and then tailoring your approach to demonstrate your understanding can create deeper and more caring connections.
We’ve talked a lot about vulnerability in leadership and how it contributes to authenticity, courage, and growth. Perhaps more than any other trait, this is the one that strengthens the two-way bond that’s crucial to truly meaningful connections.
When we express vulnerability, we open up, we cast aside our fears, and we engage in more honesty with others. It builds trust and understanding, two key ingredients to stronger, longer-lasting bonds. I’ll admit that my vulnerability is nearly nonexistent, but I do recognize that when I embrace it, I experience the greatest growth in my relationships.
In my early experience as a leader, I wasn’t leaning into the same traits to build professional relationships as I would have to build personal relationships.
And because of that, I wasn’t as effective as I could have been—nor did I reap the true benefits of nurturing those relationships to help members of my team succeed, thrive, and grow.
As with any relationship, the connections we build with our peers, our colleagues, and our team members require effort to receive a return. For leaders, building meaningful connections becomes important to our personal growth, the growth of those we lead, and even the growth of our organizations. And at a time when many of us continue to work remotely, when our physical separation creates new barriers, and proximity bias is growing, we’re wise to think about how we can tap into our emotional intelligence and other gifts to form tighter bonds.
You can learn more about Transitions Coaching and meet our team here. And if our values align with your own and you’re interested in exploring more of the tools, resources, and support we have to offer, reach out to us today.