Keeping personal lives completely separate and private from professional is a fundamental mistake. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses and leaders relied on social events, business lunches, and team dinners for their executives to make personal connections and discover shared interests.
Mostly these private and personal conversations were confined to small groups of twos or threes. Some of these conversations were inappropriate and damaging, particularly to women. Formal lines of communication were crossed as staff talked with bosses. In every organization this informal network of personal connections creates a sense of belonging, people who know what was going on, and who to problem solve with to get things done.
The informal network of relationships is broken with restructures, working from home, or with few opportunities to interact quote-on-quote socially. As social and psychological beings, people are drawn to like-minded others. They are drawn by personal qualities like trust, care, insight, helpfulness, or criticisms. And they are drawn to one another by unlikely and shared personal experiences (such as caring for an elderly parent, or surviving a disaster, or having a peripatetic childhood).
These work relationships look like friendships, where people have a respect and liking for each other. But managers do not really know if this is what is happening; perhaps your workers are just trying their best to get along.
For leaders, it’s important that your workers don’t just like each other; but like working together at the same place. Their bonds should be emotional bonds born out of understanding of shared experiences or differences. Therefore, if you want to transform your business, leaders needs to transform the informal network of relationships within their businesses. The purpose remains the same, to create human bonds and connections so people work well together. The method is different.
The new normal is to bring previously personal and private conversations openly into leadership teams, based on criteria relevant to the work of the group. This requires both leaders and their staff to be vulnerable, authentic, and candid. Human bonds form based on shared experiences and understanding as executives and staff get to know one another.
What works? To begin meetings, executives and their teams use a new form of introductions. They are invited to share brief stories based on one or more of these specifically chosen criteria.
- The moment I realized I wanted to make a difference to x was y.
- A family dynamic that has influenced me as a leader is x.
- An experience I bring that shaped how I approach conflict is x.
- An experience that helps me maintain my resilience is x.
- I think of x, as family member who influences me now.
Leaders who invest in discovering exactly who is at the table know the specific individuals present are more important than any role. Informal relationships create a sense of belonging, and being humanly connected regardless of the organization structure.
Why do leaders avoided building purposeful personal connections within their organizations? These executives likely value logical processes to create results over human connections. This no longer works, if it ever did. They fear being personal themselves and they fear inviting personal stories will unleash unwanted emotions. This might be the case as people connect relevantly with one another. But the emotions released are more productive that the painful current dissatisfaction. Most executives left personal relationships to chance and happenstance to company parties and office gossip. Those who did failed on three fronts: They failed to unleash hidden talents among their staff; they failed to create the new lifeblood every organization needs; and they failed to protect staff who were ostracized or abused.
Group cohesion relies on more than half the group members having positive mutual relationships. No formal organization structure is ever going to create this. Activating new informal networks of relationships that benefit everyone socially and psychologically benefits the business too.
But, forming good working relationships is personal. They rely on bringing forward previously and current private experiences relevantly. These conversation are not in private, they are within siloed groups at work. What is shared remains private to those interacting. These stories do not belong to the organization or to HR. The content is not to be shared with others. Begin upfront and personal is the new normal for productivity and trust cultures, and creating a sense of belonging.
Diana Jones is a leadership adviser, executive coach, and author of Leadership Levers: Releasing the Power of Relationships for Exceptional Participation, Alignment, and Team Results published in 2021 under Routledge Press.