Don't Lead with Competence, Lead with Connection

Todd Hall
July 15, 2014

Have you ever been so pressured on a project that you focused solely on the tasks and forgot that you are working with human beings—people who have anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreams just like you?  

 Several years ago, I was in a meeting between two departments that were working on a project together. There had been several miscommunications and each department was frustrated with the other. The time had come for the key players from both departments to meet and try to resolve the problems. The leader of one department started the meeting out by blaming the other department and demanding they do a better job with their part of the project. Sure, he showed his "strength," but the meeting did not go well from there. He was so concerned with competence, he forgot he was relating to people—not robots or computers. And as a consequence, it hurt the entire team's performance on the project. I do my own version of this all the time. I get so focused on my to-do list and my goals that I lose sight of the chance to connect to the people I work with, and to maybe help them in some small, but meaningful way. 

Our work culture is so focused on results that make us look successful (smart and competent), that we often lose sight of the big picture. We often lose sight of the importance of connecting in our work relationships. Connection, however, isn't just a nice add-on at work; it's a huge part of what makes work meaningful, and it's critical for team performance. A recent Harvard Business Review article, “Connect, Then Lead,” argues that connection or warmth is so important, in fact, that you should start with connecting before demonstrating strength or competence. The authors cite research by social psychologist Alex Todorov and colleagues, which found that the first thing we evaluate in others when we look at their face is their trustworthiness. We tune-in to warmth faster than competence. Here are three benefits of starting with connection.

1. Connection Creates Meaning. If you start with connection, and focus on connection at work, you will create a much more meaningful work life. Why? Because we are born to connect and this basic drive doesn't just disappear in our work life. In her recent book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington makes an important observation: "Have you noticed that when we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives very differently from the way society defines success?" At the end of the day, people aren't going to remember you for your titles, roles, and accomplishments, as important as those things are. They are going remember how you treated them, and how they felt about themselves when they were with you. They are going to remember you for how (well) you connected, because that is what's most meaningful to them. 

Now think about this from your point of view. When you take a step back from the deadlines, emails that need to be answered, and projects that need to be completed, what is most meaningful to you in your work life? I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that somewhere near the top of the list is the relationships you've developed along the way. So don't wait until the end of your career to start building meaningful relationships—start now.

2. Connection Sets in Motion Positive Processes that Will Broaden and Build. When I was in the Officer Basic Course in the Army, we had to do "land navigation.” In other words, start at point A and find point B using a map and a compass (in the 105 degree heat of San Antonio!). What I learned from experience is that if you start off in the wrong direction even just a little bit, you end up way off course down the road. That small difference at the beginning can have a big effect later. 

The same is true for conversations and relationships at work. Start by connecting with people on a human level, and people will feel positive emotions. Psychologist Barbara Frederickson's broaden-and-build theory has demonstrated that positive emotions widen the range of people's thought and action, facilitating generativity and flexibility. So when you create positive feelings by starting with connection, you set in motion a positive process that leads to more connection, productivity and teamwork.

3. Connection Build Trust and Security. Connection is the conduit for trust and security. This is foundational for the health of any team and organization. We know from attachment theory that children need a "secure base" with their caregivers in order to explore the world. Likewise, employees need a secure base to focus on their work, to create, and to innovate. People feel a secure base when they know you genuinely care about them and when you are responsive to their needs. Think about this: When you're distressed because you don't trust what a co-worker is doing, where is your energy directed? It's directed to managing your distress, anxiety, anger, etc. When you're focused internally on managing negative emotions, that hinders your ability to focus on your work and to be creative.  

Creating a culture of security is the #1 responsibility of the leader. Security and trust, in turn, foster positive organizational outcomes including information sharing, openness to other points of view, innovation, and cooperation to name a few. I believe that Connected Leaders develop thriving employees and teams who experience more meaning in their work, and achieve consistently high performance. So, if you want to develop thriving employees who are free to focus, create, and achieve sustained high performance, then you must connect in a secure and loving way. You must lead with connection. Applying this insight to your own life starts with self-awareness.

Reflection Questions

Do you tend to start with connecting, or do you start by showing your competence?

What types of situations are triggers for you to start with competence instead of connection? Knowing your triggers will help you avoid the temptation to lead with competence.

I hope these reflections help you to lead with connection! For more insights on developing meaningful work and relationships, sign up here for my newsletter. As a welcome gift for joining, I invite you to take my free MCORE quiz, discover your #1 motivation, and elevate performance and meaning in your work and relationships.