As humans, we are all hardwired to want to connect and belong. Experiencing connection and belonging (or the absence of it) completely influences how we show up in conversations. When we feel connection and belonging we are trusting, we lean in and are open. Whereas when we feel the absence of connection and belonging we are distrusting, we become guarded and we either shut down or argue.
Knowing this and approaching conversations with the intention of creating a connection first and foremost is a really important skill for leaders to develop. I can't recount the number of times I've had to prepare for a difficult conversation as a leader and had to calm myself, ground into my values and center around the deeper purpose of what we had to discuss. It makes a world of difference in terms of elevating the outcomes of the conversation. Except for the rare times that it doesn't.
I can think of one particular instance where I persistently went out of my way to try to connect with an employee I managed. He had an unhealthy dynamics with my predecessor and no matter what I did, I couldn't get him to open up to me or trust me to lead him. He not only remained guarded towards me, but he was also stuck viewing me as the enemy and treated me accordingly.
I learned the hard way that you can't force someone to connect with you. And what was really concerning about this situation is that the person I was trying to connect with used my vulnerability against me. I now recognize such abusive projection as a major red flag.
When someone attacks another person for opening up about something that is never ok. In fact, that is a form of bullying. Using someone's vulnerability to exert power over them is insidious. And what's worse, when I've encountered this it's been from people who think of themselves as kind, and considerate. They're too close to their own defense mechanisms to see a vicious pattern play out. They're unaware of the huge chasm between their intention and their impact.
These moments of disconnect can be some of the hardest for a leader to navigate. What do you do when you have someone that you're trying hard to connect with yet they remain so steeped in their own pattern of self-preservation they refuse to open up?
In the instance of the employee I managed, the answer became obvious to us both, it was time for him to move on. And it was important for me to learn from the experience so I didn't replicate the problems with the next employee.
Just because you can't force someone to connect with you doesn't mean you have to put up with that kind of behavior. You can't force someone to connect but you can make relationship building an integral part of your culture. You can do that by normalizing things like talking about emotions at work. You can do that by not shaming or blaming people when mistakes happen but by having candid conversations with care and compassion that allow for collective learning to take place. You can do that by openly discussing when there is a disconnect and working towards a resolution.
Those were all the lessons I applied when hiring for and training the new employee. Mindfully establishing a culture of relationship-building has made a world of difference, especially when navigating troubling times.
The fact is, relationship building is not an integral part of most company cultures because the norm has been that business and life are two separate things. Sayings like, "this is about business, it's not personal" or "lets get right down to business" are so hard-baked into corporate culture that you're often the oddball for prioritizing relationship building and actually acting on that intention effectively.
As one of the young professionals I interviewed said, "It's learning how to manage in a way that's completely different from the way I grew up thinking about management."
This was the problem my predecessor had. He never prioritized relationship building with the employee I ended up managing. He was all business because that's how it had always been done.
Your conditioning is not your fault. And it is your responsibility to step back, recognize the ways you've internalized these antiquated management and leadership techniques so you change them. Because changing on purpose, growing through these lessons learned and shifting the way you show up so you're intentions match your impact is not only your birthright, it's your responsibility.
Shifting not only individual behavior but cultural norms in this way is hard work. There's no overnight success. It's a slog. Leaders need to set the tone and the expectation, then hold people accountable for evolving in this way. And if someone on your team is refusing to do this work then they are not truly doing their job. And dealing with that reality is a whole other challenge that becomes more manageable when relationship building is an integral part of your culture.