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The Proteus Leader Show #27: Creating Connected Cultures

This month, Erika has an insightful conversation with Michael Lee Stallard, whose latest book, Connection Cultures, provides guidance for deepening our connections at work to help us all take best advantage of the power of connection.

00:00-01:06 - Introduction

01:06-03:45 - What is a Connection Culture?

03:45-05:40 - How Connection Culture Works

05:40-07:52 - Creating & Fostering Connection Cultures

07:52-10:46 - Three Ways to Build Connection Cultures

10:46-14:24 - Examples of Effective Culture Builders

14:24-14:45 - Closing

Intro: (00:01) You're listening to the Proteus Leader Show with Erika Andersen where you'll get practical tools and insights for leading and managing and staying ready for the future. Erika is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses uniquely on leader readiness. A nationally known executive coach and bestselling author, you may already know her as one of the most popular leadership bloggers on Ready for something you can use today? Here's Erika.

Erika: (00:31) Hi everybody. Welcome back to the Proteus Leader Show. My guest today is Michael Lee Stallard, a thought leader, speaker and expert on how boosting human connection improves the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He's the author among other books and coauthor of a number, but his latest book is Connection Culture, the competitive advantage of shared identity, empathy and understanding at work, and he and his partners at E Pluribus Partners work to help leaders create cultures that connect. So, welcome to the show, Michael.

Michael: (01:06) Thanks, Erika. Great to be with you.

Erika: (01:07) Yes, I'm really glad you could be with this. So you and I, we were just talking about this, you and I met a number of years ago as authors at an author conference and I've always appreciated your human centered approach to successful business and so I thought that would be valuable for our listeners to hear more about. So, as you know, I've got some questions for you. The first one is, Michael, you've said connection cultures are characterized by identity, empathy and understanding. So that fascinates me. So what do you mean by those things and how does having them build businesses?

Michael: (01:40) It really starts with understanding that if you think of a continuum with one end where people feel a sense of connection with one another, a real human connection, and the opposite of that being isolation or loneliness, then a culture that has human connection has, I think of it as a superpower and I wish I would have come up with that. It was Matthew Lieberman, the neuroscientist at UCLA who says connection makes people smarter, happier and more productive. It also boosts employee engagement, a strategic alignment, so that we like to say that connection is the power that transforms a dog-eat-dog culture into a sled-dog team that pulls together, so a little corny, but you get the idea and, and then it also improves decision making because people care enough to take risks, to communicate even information that the recipient may not want to hear but needs to hear to make the best decisions. And then they engage in creative conversations that fuels innovation. So connection is the goal, creating culture where you have that strong camaraderie and connection and that comes about through what you just mentioned, shared identity, empathy and understanding or another way that's a little more memorable way to say it is that when leaders communicate an inspiring vision, which is about their identity, when they value people, when they give them a voice, then it creates this sense of connection. And that really gets down to that identity. How we think of, you know, how we think of ourselves. Do we have some bridges of identity? Do we feel each other's emotions? And when we do that connects us. When we feel someone's positive emotion and enhances their positive emotions, when we feel their pain, it diminishes their pain and then connects us. And then finally, do we have a shared understanding about where we're going, how we're going to get there. What's my role? Things like that. And those three things create that sense of connection.

Erika: (03:45) Oh, that's lovely. And it makes complete sense to me. I love the focus on a shared vision as a sense of identity. Like who are we together? I was talking to a client the other day and he was talking about a company that he used to work for where they created a really strong internal sense of sort of who we are in the world and that everybody was able to rally around that. And I love that. That makes complete sense to me, in terms of identity and as I'm listening to you talk about these things, identity and empathy, caring for each other, about each other, and having shared understanding and how that makes people smarter and happier, the image that immediately came to mind is, you know, you put your guard down when you feel connected, you don't have to be self protective anymore. Is that accurate, do you think?

Michael: (04:36) Yeah, I think you feel, you know, number one, it really, these days, if you look at the research, people are under a lot of stress. Gallup has some great research that shows 80 percent of the people feel like they're afflicted by stress and just the world is a bit overwhelming. All the information we have and, and our KPIs and our organizations and just life outside of work and that combination of when people have high stress but they don't have connection, they're very vulnerable to anxiety, depression and ultimately addiction. So it really, when people have that connection, it enables them to stretch, to cope with stress. And it actually, I think of it as transforming stress from being toxic to being a positive. But if you don't have that connection, you're very vulnerable to diminished wellness and wellbeing and performance.

Erika: (05:34) Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Lack of connection is toxic and connection itself is nourishing.

Michael: (05:40) Absolutely.

Erika: (05:41) That's great. Well, so what's hard about this? What do you think is hardest about creating connection cultures?

Michael: (05:48) Well, I'm borrowing from Matthew Lieberman again. Yeah. I think he came up with some great things. He, you know, in addition to the superpower of connection, he said our Kryptonite is that we don't recognize how important connection is and I think that is so true. I just find a lot of leaders really don't, you know, it's, it's rare the leader who understands how powerful connection is. You know, I think the Alan Mulally, the Vernon Clark who turned around the US Navy, they understand how important connection is and of course you know it, it helps achieve sustainable superior performance, but most leaders don't. They focus on task excellence and results, but they don't develop another way to say connection is relationship excellence and they're just not as intentional about that and they, they think they see it, but unless you measure it, you really don't know because everyone of course smiles in front of the boss and has a lot of energy, but it's when they're away from the people at the top that you really, connection really makes a difference.

Erika: (06:46) Yeah. I really think you're right, and often leaders dismiss it by saying things like, well, you don't have to like each other to work together, you know, and that's kind of code for. I don't care if you're connected with each other and I don't really see how that matters, but I agree with you, it completely matters.

Michael: (07:05) But it's so interesting that even Gallup will say the most important question on the 12 questions they use in their employee engagement assessment is, do you have a best friend at work? Now that's hard for a leader to be responsible for creating best friends at work. If you do have supportive relationships, it really does make a difference. One way I like to think of it is when you first join a team you don't have, they don't really know you. They haven't had a chance. You haven't a chance to prove what you can do so at least expect them to respect you and then as you're there longer, you hope to get some encouragement and some appreciation for your strengths and as you're there even longer, you start develop that sense of belonging that people have your back and that reduces stress and just makes you perform even better.

Erika: (07:52) Yeah, and leaders can foster that environment. That kind of segues right into my next question, which is, you know, I always promise practical insights, so what are some actual practical things that leaders can do that our listeners can do starting, now, to build this kind of culture in their team and in their broader organization?

Michael: (08:13) Yeah. Three things come to mind. Real quick. One, I call them micro connections, which is just, you know, make sure you get to know people's names. You get to know their stories. You take the time to learn something about them, you know, their interests outside of work. And that can really be a bridge of connection to everyone. Um, so that's, that's a quick thing you can do. Secondly, I'm a big fan of what I call knowledge flow sessions. You see organizations like Pixar and Disney animation do this, which is for leaders to really be open and put their cards on the table and say, here's what I'm thinking about a particular issue or our strategy or our KPIs for the year. But then, you know, share your thinking and then ask people what's right, what's wrong, what's missing from my thinking that. They really want to stress test their thinking. They have the humility to know that they don't have all the right answers and when they do that and people over time, you know, at first they may hold back because who wants to tell the boss that he or she is wrong, so people learn not to do that, but after a while, after somebody has the courage and truth tellers who will speak up, um, and when they're encouraged that had the courage to speak up, then over time people get to see that it's safe and it always helps decision makers make sharper decisions. They always learn something and when they, when they listened to what people have to say, it's not a time to be critical. It's a time just to listen, take it in and, and, you know, implement the good ideas and give people credit. Then they'll start to be proactive about coming to you when they become aware of information that you need to know and you don't have to go to them as much. Although it's still a good idea to regularly go to them. I call it a knowledge flow session. It really, you kind of get all, you get, people feel valued, you're giving them a voice and also helps keep them connected to the vision of what you're trying to achieve.

Erika: (10:09) Yeah. I love that Michael and I, and I'm really glad that you said because I think it's especially important how that's received. Fairly often leaders get the advice to do that, you know, collaborative brainstorming, sharing thoughts and asking for responses to their ideas. But boy, you can really smash that by, by then not taking it well, not accepting it or immediately disagreeing or making people feel bad for having said anything. So I love that you said, you know, you just really need to listen and embrace them having said it, whether or not you initially agree. So that's wonderful.

Michael: (10:46) I think another thing Erika, they can do is, um, you know, I think of Jim Goodnight, who founded SAS Institute and I love that he has these Java With Jim sessions or Howard Behar who I really credit for having a huge impact on Starbucks culture and its success and Howard called them open forums where he would basically just go around to a Starbucks shops and answer questions and he's very, a very safe, approachable person. Was actually an employee or a district manager who contacted him with the idea for a Frappuccino that now represents about 20 percent of Starbuck's revenues. So, you know, great things percolate up from the bottom, from the people who are on the front lines when they're encouraged. And Costco a company that I'm working with now, they, they are amazing in terms of just capturing good and encouraging employees to come up with ideas that improve their delivery of their products to their members. Um, you know, how to treat employees even better, which they're well known for. And they capture those in the film. And I just last year spoke at their annual, manager's conference in Seattle and they showed all these little videos, Erika, of people from around the world. And what I loved about it was they were just of all nationalities and colors and genders and it was such a mix of ages. It was such a mix of people who came up with great ideas and I think that just really encourages everyone to do the same and they would be rewarded, you know, they would be recognized for that. So it's, it's just exciting to see the energy that, that unleashes when you ask, when you really can ask and seek and consider employee's ideas.

Erika: (12:35) And I can really see how, going back to the beginning of our conversation that companies were that genuinely and sincerely invite and make use of employee's ideas that that would really ramp up identity I'm and understanding. So I see how that all connects together. That's wonderful.

Michael: (12:54) You know, I think of one of your clients, Danny Meyer and what he has done in the restaurant industry with, you know, he's created such a great connection culture and you've added so much to the work they do. I'm just clarifying their culture, but it's been wildly successful and I think these days and for organizations like Costco or Danny Meyer's restaurants to have people on the front lines who really do feel connected to the organization, to its leaders and they bring that sense of connection to the customers or if it's in health care to patients and it makes, it has a huge difference on customer impact, on customer satisfaction or even patient outcomes.

Erika: (13:37) Completely, completely. I mean, when the person, when the person at the frontline person who is interacting with you as a customer, as a patient, as a client, really feels like they are the organization, the organizations, they feel proud. They feel connected. Of course, that has a dramatic impact on how that interaction goes. I could not agree with you more about that. Oh Michael I feel like we could keep talking for hours and hours. This all makes so much sense. It's so sensible. It's just a matter of doing it. So listeners, I really recommend that you read Connection Culture to go deeper into these ideas and if you'd like to find out more about how we at Proteus also supports clients creating strong positive cultures, you can just go to and choose the Company Culture topic. So thank you so much Michael.

Michael: (14:24) It's my pleasure. Thanks Erika. I appreciate you having me.

Erika: (14:28) Of course, and thank you everyone for listening and until next time, here's to creating the life you truly want.

Outro: (14:42) We hope you're feeling better equipped to create the career, the business and the life you want. For more insights and tools for leadership and management, join us at Have an excellent day and thanks for listening.