Communication happens best when you ensure meaningful connections are part of the process. So too does leadership’s critical work, whether your goal is to inspire and develop others or build effective teams and organizations. During a global pandemic that continues to keep us apart, personal connections have never mattered more.
When your priority is to be a better communicator—or beef up your effectiveness as a leader—one of the best ways to do it is by strengthening connections that help you build relationships. The prominence of ‘establishing connections’ in Gallop’s research on vital leadership competencies is a case in point.
If boosting your ‘connector’ skillset is on your leadership development radar, here are five concrete ways to do it well.
Building meaningful connections is a cultivating process, not an event. As in gardening, it takes time, commitment, focus, and follow-through. And it helps to be intentional along the way.
Example: Let’s say you are leading a team with several new members—essentially, leading a new team—while your organization is going through a period of significant change. You may be putting a lot of focus on relationships and team building. Furthermore, you are also challenged to get everyone moving quickly in a new direction.
When you lead a new team, the time you devote to team members and their needs really matters.
One of the leaders I coach is in this situation, and here is what is working for this leader:
- Setting a clear intention to meet regularly with each team member to get to know them and their work;
- Ensuring team members have what they need to succeed in their new roles;
- Committing to be as available to team members as possible.
This leader’s commitment to spending focussed 1:1 time with team members enables meaningful connections to develop as the team itself begins to form. In the process, team members are becoming more engaged in team meetings. Their collective agenda is now more focussed and aligned.
Get to know your people.
Getting to know the people you lead is vital to the process of building personal connections. And it takes time, energy, and some creativity.
Creativity is especially important right now. Many of the usual ways of connecting with people in the workplace are limited or no longer possible—especially the informal ones such as lunchroom conversations and casual hallway exchanges.
Suppose you are a very private person or more accustomed to leading independent projects. In that case, the connection aspect of leadership may feel a little awkward or uncomfortable to you. However, it is essential to your effectiveness as a communicator and a leader.
People relate to people, and team members want their leaders to take the time to get to know them and what matters to them. Leaders can engage with their team through conversations and questions that invite members to talk about their interests, unique talents, contributions, and career aspirations.
It also matters to team members that their leaders pay enough attention to recognize when someone is struggling or succeeding or ready for a different kind of challenge. (Though they may not want to discuss details, leaders’ extra support during challenging personal or family issues may be appropriate.)
The leaders who demonstrate a genuine interest in getting to know their people are building and sustaining the connective tissue from which meaningful relationships can emerge.
Be fully present.
When you watch an effective leader communicating and interacting with others, a few things stand out. Particularly their commitment to being present.
What is ‘being present’ all about, and why does it make such a difference when it comes to connecting and communicating with those you lead? How can you be present too?
In simple terms, ‘being present’ is about being in the moment, concentrating all your attention —your thoughts, emotions, and focus—on the person or matter in front of you.
Leaders who are fully present have built their self-discipline muscle to set aside external distractions. They have also learned to manage the internal distractions that prevent them from being present. Distractions such as:
- Making assumptions
- Passing judgement
- Jumping to conclusions.
Being present requires you to be all-in, entirely in the moment – just like a full-contact sport. As the leaders I coach often tell me, it is easier to say than do!
However, they also tell me how much of a difference it makes in the quality and effectiveness of their interpersonal connections and communication when they are present.
They also tell me about the positive feedback they receive from their peers and staff who feel acknowledged and heard as a result. That is the power of a leader being present.
Being present requires you to be all in, entirely in the moment – just like a full-contact sport.
Fully present leaders are not just more effective communicators; they are often better leaders. Whether you are having an intimate conversation with one employee or leading a briefing for many, you will build the deep awareness and personal connections essential to effective communication and leadership by being present.
Being open is a related and equally powerful way to build and deepen connections. Being open is about your willingness to be open to the people you lead and all they represent, individually and collectively—for example, being open to a broad and potentially diverse range of team member skills, experiences, perspectives, aspirations, developmental needs, and ways of working and communicating.
Team members will pay close attention to your actions when they assess your degree of openness. Do you acknowledge and include all team members? Do you show your appreciation for others, perhaps by acknowledging contributions or a special effort?
Being open is also about your willingness to allow your team to know you and understand what they can expect. As well, it is about being open and flexible in how you interact with them. Are you open to team input in shaping the path forward? How about being willing to engage in a meaningful conversation about options and alternate approaches? Are you open to flexibility when unexpected issues occur and a deadline may be in jeopardy?
Team members will be much more inclined to be open with you if you are willing to be open with them. In the process, you will build the kind of connections on which authentic conversations and relationships can thrive.
Check your assumptions.
Have you ever found yourself thinking something about a person, only to discover something entirely different when you took the time to get to know them?
Or have you ever found yourself dismissing someone’s ideas in a meeting before learning they had done a significant amount of research before making their suggestions?
In both cases, assumptions play a role. Assumptions have their place in business and leadership and in science and research; however, assumptions must be tested and validated to ensure they do not replace evidence and facts.
The tendency to make assumptions, especially about people, needs careful self-management by every leader. Otherwise, you may find yourself developing a habit that predisposes you to behave differently toward a person or react inappropriately to them.
For example, if you brief team members about a new direction and see a few heads nodding in agreement, do you assume everyone is on board and ready to proceed? Or do you note that some team members seem ready to go, but others may need time to process the news and what it means for them before they can talk with you about it? How might you choose to lead your team in this instance if you resisted your initial assumption that everyone was ready to proceed?
If you notice yourself forming or holding an assumption, one of the best ways to lead is to ask questions, and really listen to the answers. When you lead from curiosity rather than assumptions, you are positioning yourself to learn more about each team member. By inviting their questions, ideas, and perspectives, you build and strengthen the personal connections on which effective communication thrives. You will also gain a far more accurate appreciation of each person than your initial assumptions may have allowed.
Leaders must be able to build and sustain personal connections to lead and communicate effectively. Whether you start with one or all five of the ways I described, each of these approaches helps you connect with the people you lead. As you do, expect to build your leadership toolkit along the way.