Financial Planning

Why leaders must learn to connect to improve engagement

12 August 2019

Michelle Sales

Michelle Sales is a speaker, trainer, coach and author who helps senior leaders and their teams to build confidence and maximise their leadership and performance by consciously connecting with others.

The ability to build trust, engagement and connection is now a critical skill at the leadership level.

A day in the life of a leader comprises many management tasks: overseeing work performance, managing improvement initiatives, reporting to stakeholders and juggling a multitude of priorities that never seem to end.

Yet additional pressures mount in today’s changing landscape – managing team communication and engagement across different time zones, responding to client demands on diverse offline and online channels, building relationships and influence throughout matrix structures – all while under pressure to perform more, with less.

Add to this the complexity of managing different generations with different expectations. Now the pressure mounts to provide work purpose over a pay cheque: for coaching, collaboration and connection opportunities that make employees feel a part of a bigger vision.

The ability to build trust, engagement and connection is now a critical skill at the leadership level.

Yet our leaders’ job descriptions have never been about building trust or connection; they’ve always been about the doing, not the being of leadership.

Geoff Healy, BHP’s chief of external affairs, said in Canberra in 2017 that the disintegration of trust in industry had reached ‘a tipping point’ and that many Australians perceived business as ‘complacent … and untrustworthy’.

This is why it is not enough for us, as leaders, to be technically strong – we now need to be able to build trust and connection within the organisation, as well as outside it.

Trust us

Trust is critical for your clients and community – just look at the fallout from the Hayne Royal Commission.

The Deloitte Trust Index – Banking 2018 survey showed that: “Fifty-nine per cent of customers believe banks have the interests of shareholders at heart, but only one-third say banks always look for new ways to provide better services to customers, and only one in five say banks have customer interests at heart.”

It’s no longer enough to focus on remediation, action plans and ‘mopping up’ after a situation has occurred. We must ensure a solid foundation of trust, first and foremost, which will lead to a greater connection with our employees, stakeholders, clients and communities.

Paul Zak compared high and low trust in organisations in his book Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies. Staff working in companies with high trust reported 74 per cent less stress, 50 per cent higher productivity, 76 per cent more engagement, and 29 per cent more satisfaction with their lives.

In addition, those companies that are voted ‘best place to work’ or an ‘employer of choice’ value and foster connection among their teams and organisations. As Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith, senior vice president of research at PageUp People, puts it, these companies are “meeting the more altruistic and basic human needs of feeling connected and being an important part in something bigger”.

Connecting the dots

For many years, Google has studied and analysed what makes a great leader. The most current data was published in a 2019 article from Inc. Magazine titled: Here’s how Google knows in less than 5 minutes if someone is a great leader. It confirms that frequent conversations between a leader and their team members result in high performance.

This proves that our ability to connect with others is a vital skill that impacts the results of leading organisations. In fact, a study by Gallup revealed that companies with engaged workforces have higher earnings per share and even recovered at a faster rate from economic downturns, like the GFC.

Our people actually want to feel connected to their leader and they want to work for a leader who values them in return.

Prolific author and researcher, Brené Brown, describes this kind of connection as “the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard and valued – when they can give and receive without judgment”.

In his book Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, Matthew Lieberman says, “Our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water”.

Overall, when employees are encouraged to connect, communicate and collaborate better, this leads to an increase in productivity, not to mention happiness. This, in turn, has a positive impact on retention and company loyalty.

Isn’t that something we all want?