How Great Leaders Create Engaging Cultures That Maximize Results

mike stallard

While working on Wall Street, Michael Lee Stallard observed that differences in the cultures of merging organizations frequently sabotaged post-merger performance. As a result, he decided to study organizational culture in-depth, which led to writing two books about it, “Fired Up or Burned Out (2007)” and “Connection Culture (2015),” and co-founding the Connection Culture Group (CCG). Since that time, Mike and his colleagues at CCG have developed frameworks, training and tools that have been praised by well-respected leaders, including Alan Mulally, the CEO who turned around the Ford Motor Company; Frances Hesselbein, the leader who rejuvenated the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.; and Jim Sinegal, co-founder and longtime CEO of Costco. Mike has spoken about organizational culture at a wide variety of organizations including Google, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, NASA, Qualcomm and Texas Christian University (which founded the TCU Center for Connection Culture).

In an exclusive webinar for LEADx subscribers, Michael taught three elements of team and organizational culture every leader needs to know, the neuroscience of organizational culture, best practice actions leaders can take to develop and maintain extraordinary team and organizational cultures, and mini-case studies of great leaders who created engaging cultures that produced sustainable superior performance.

Michael Lee Stallard: “Hi my name is Michael Stallard and I'm the author of the book Fired Up or Burned Out, and our latest book Connection Culture. Today we're going to talk about how great leaders create an engaging environment and culture that maximizes results, so let's jump right in.

First of all, I want to talk a little bit about the context of the environment we all live in, working today, and it's a busy life, isn't it? There's so much information coming at us, expectations for our work have risen over the years, many of us commute to our jobs, and it feels like we have less downtime. We're spending more time working, and the pace of the world is much faster. That's an important thing to note: the stressors are higher today in life. It may be job stress, it may be personal financial stress that you experience, stress from health issues. Those things have an effect on us and how we perform. The culture we work in will either help us cope with those issues or make things worse, and it affects our performance.

We’re also expected to do more. In the past, organizations were a little bit more focused on what they were trying to achieve. Now, I think many leaders are super ambitious, where they're trying to do too much and could use a little bit more focus. But there's more pushback for greater and greater productivity and that creates stress on us. In addition, more people are working alone. They're spending more time on social media, less time on face to face communication, and you'll see later in this presentation that this has an effect on us. We need to be aware of and manage our lives so that we perform at the top of our game and create cultures that help us perform at the top of our game.

The neuroscience of organizational culture. We could spend literally half a day on this topic alone. What we've done in our work is boiled it down to what you need to know.

Chronic loneliness is a stressor. Research shows that about half of Americans are chronically lonely, and I would say there's a higher percentage that just doesn't have enough human connection in their lives to perform at the top of their game. When you're in a state of chronic loneliness, or even you're getting less than the connection you need, it has an effect on you.

It makes you more vulnerable to other stressors in your life so that you feel more intense negative reaction to those stressors. And the positive things you have in your life that produce positive emotions have less impact if you are lonely, or socially isolated, or just not getting the human connection you need, because we're hardwired to connect. So that's something you need to be aware of. Also, if you're getting less than the connection you need, you're going to experience greater feelings of helplessness and threat. You feel like you have less control over your situation, and that's not good. In addition to that, it impairs the cognitive function so that we're less likely to make rational decisions and we're more likely to make rash decisions.

In addition, when we don't get the human connection we need, it affects our sleep. We don't sleep as deeply. It's not as restorative and that gives us less energy to meet our obligations. When we don't have that connection and sleep, we’re less likely to exercise and more likely to eat high sugar, high-fat foods as a means to cope because we don't feel good.

We start looking for dopamine, which is a chemical that makes us feel better. It's a source of positive emotions, but it has a very short effect and it can become addictive so that people are looking for things that produce dopamine all the time, and that often leads people to addictive behaviors. Sugar is a big one, caffeine, developing some type of internet addiction, shopping, or a number of behaviors that are addictive because they make us feel better for a short time, but it's very short before we regret that unhealthy behavior.

Then ultimately, getting less than the connection we need in our culture or our environment can contribute to depression. Although they're different, they're highly correlated. So oftentimes, people who are lonely, socially isolated, or just not getting the connections they need, often struggle with depression.

Now, the opposite of loneliness and social isolation is a rich connection. Rich connections in our lives at home and also in the workplace. Matthew Lieberman, who's a neuroscientist at UCLA describes connection as a superpower that makes us happier, smarter, and more productive. That's certainly true, but it also has additional benefits above and beyond that. Human connection makes us more resilient to cope with the stress in life because of serotonin.

Serotonin comes from relationships. Some foods produce serotonin, but the primary source is human connection and empathy. When we have that sense of bonding with our friends and family outside of work, our coworkers, serotonin is produced. It’s a positive emotion. It acts to stabilize the nervous system so we're less likely to experience anxiety, depression, and addiction. So, having this serotonin from connection helps make us more resilient to cope with stress.

It also protects us from illness, because when our body is in a state of stress response because we don't have those connections, it over-allocates blood glucose and oxygen to the fight or flight systems. In other words, the heart, the lungs, the big muscles. And it under-allocates those same resources to the part of the brain called the hippocampus, the digestive system, the immune system, and the reproductive system. Those systems I just mentioned, are getting less of the resources blood sugar, blood glucose and oxygen than they need to really be healthy and perform at a higher level for a long period of time. If we're stuck in that state of stress response, it'll shave years off our lives, as well as affect our performance.

In addition to all these benefits I've listed, scientists have learned and it's actually about 15 years ago that a group of scientists discovered this enzyme called telomeres. One of the things that release telomeres in our body is human connection. What they found is, it helps protect our chromosomes and heal the chromosomes from damage that's done as a result of stress. It's amazing how the connection, human connection truly is a superpower that helps us in so many ways, and we are hard-wired to connect as human beings. We need this in our culture. Yet many people are struggling with this today and I think part of it could be just spending too much time on the Internet, on a smartphone, working on task but not really connecting. So, it's an important aspect of culture to make sure that we have a balance.

We need tasks and results from our work, but we also need that human connection to stabilize us and help us perform at the top of our game for a sustained period of time. It's no surprise that in research by Julianne Holt Linstead where she did a study of the studies of loneliness and connection, she found that connection was associated with a 50% reduction in the risk of early death. That would make sense when you look at all those other benefits that I just described, that come from the superpower of connection and you consider just the dangers of social isolation and loneliness.

The culture that we're in has to have a high degree of connection but also has to have aspects of task that produce results. You need that combination to really perform at the top of your game for a sustained period of time.

Here's what we have found in our research is that almost all leaders, if they last for any period of time, are intentional about developing task excellence and results, because we're paid to get things done.

But great leaders do something in addition to task excellence, and that is they develop relationship excellence and task excellence together. It's that combination that produces sustainable superior performance.

Now, organizations can focus on tasks and results and not really develop a connection, a culture where people connect and you have relationship excellence, but the problem is, it's not sustainable. Because when people don't feel connected, after a while, they stop giving their best efforts. They stop aligning their behavior with the team or the organization's goals. They stopped fully communicating or thinking about how to improve the organization. In other words, they're not engaging in the whole process of innovation, and that acts as a drag on organizational performance.

What we found was leaders who developed relationship excellence and task excellence developed what we call a culture of connection.

Now, this is an unusual example. You may have heard of the rock band U2, and they were formed in the mid-70s when they were just 14 and 15-year-old boys. At that time, they were not very good. It wasn't unusual for them to be laughed at or booed when they perform. I think they were probably pretty amusing to watch, but they had some problems.

Number one, Bono the lead singer tended to think of themselves as a punk rocker, so he tended to scream more than singing. Adam Clayton, the bass player looked the part of a rock star, even when he was young. However, he didn't know how to play bass guitar and he couldn't keep a rhythm, so there were some serious problems. He owned a bass guitar so he just jumped in and kind of fake it till you make it approach and eventually he figured it out, and the band got better.

Over time, they moved from this band that people laughed at to winning more Grammy Awards than any band in history. They surpassed the Rolling Stones record for the highest revenue producing concert series in history. So, they have been phenomenally successful. How did that happen? Well, Bono says that if you look at us, the way we work together is more extraordinary than our music. In other words, he's talking about their culture and the things they do that really create this strong sense of connection.

Number one, they split their economic profits, five equal ways between the four band members and their manager. They also, Bono says that our music is we're performers and entertainers but we're more than that, we have a message. Our music is about human rights and social justice. These are things that are important to us, and so we're not just performers and musicians we're like traveling salesman. We have a message that we're trying to promote through our music and through our influence when we're off the stage and that helps draw them together.

Secondly, they've really supported each other throughout the years. When the band first started a few, within a year afterward. Larry Mullen Jr. the drummer was actually the youngest member of the band. About that time his mother was hit and killed in a car accident. It turns out that, Bono's mother had died within the previous two years. She was attending her father's funeral and has cerebral hemorrhage and collapsed. Now, Bono grieved the loss of his mother alone, because his father and brother were so grief-stricken, they really didn't connect and help each other as much through that.

He knew that it was painful to grieve the loss of a parent alone and so, Bono reached out to, Larry and said, “I know what you're going through. And you're not going to go through this alone.” It created a strong bond between these two young men at that time that's very strong even today.

After the band got going for a while. They improved, I think people stopped laughing and booing at them. Eventually, they got an offer from A&M Records, a big recording contract but there was a condition on the offer that they replaced Larry as the drummer. Well, Bono told the record company executive to shove it. It was all of us are none of us. He had, Larry's back and was not about to let, Larry be pushed out of the band, and so they persisted. Eventually, they got other recording offers and went on to be wildly successful.

You also see that they've just supported each other through other trials that they've experienced in life. Edge went through a divorce, the guys were there to help him through that difficult time. Adam, who is living a fast life developed a drug and alcohol addiction. In fact, he showed up at one concert so stone he couldn't perform and the guys were really upset about that because they have a passion for excellence, and this was a concert they were actually filming.

Fortunately, they had someone in their entourage who could step in and play his part, but it was really a litmus test for them and they adopted the model that we're all going to get through this alive. They didn't throw Adam overboard and they really helped Adam get through his drug and alcohol addiction. I think he's really flourishing today. When you look at pictures of him, he just seems to be in a great place.

Then even, Bono has gone through some difficult times. I think one in particular where he received an anonymous note that said, “If you sing the song, Pride,” which is about the Reverend Martin Luther King, most of us know in the name of love. “If you play that song or perform that song in the concert I'm going to put an effing bullet through your head.” The FBI told the band, this was, the concert was going to be in the United States and the FBI told the band that they believed it was a credible threat. But, the guys decided they weren't going to back down, they went on stage, they performed that song and, Bono as he was singing the lyrics in that song, there's a phrase about the bullet that rings out in the Memphis sky that killed Dr. King, and before he sang that he closed his eyes, and when he opened his eyes, to his surprise, Adam was standing in front of him to protect his friend from harm. Now, I'm not saying you have to take a bullet for a colleague at work. However, it just shows how this amazing connection and brotherhood these four guys have together.

Another thing that's really helped them and connected them is the way they make decisions. If somebody strongly opposes a particular direction, then they won't do it. Bono says this can be frustrating at times because oftentimes we don't agree and it can take more time to work through our agreements. However, we believe that it produces the best results, and who's to argue with their track record, they have been wildly successful.

You can see how this band U2 has really thrived over, they've been together all their adult lives, which it's rare for most bands to do that. In fact, most megastars take 50% of the profits, and yet, Bono takes an equal share with his three bandmates and his manager. You just see how he as a leader is connecting and encouraging connection among the band members.

Vision, Value, Voice. Vision exists when everyone in the organization is motivated by their mission, united by the values, and proud of the reputation. So, you think about U2, I talked about their music is about human rights, and social justice and for them, that's their vision. That's what they focus on. Their music really has meaning, that's the vision part for them.

Value is defined as when everyone in the organization, they understand the needs of people. They appreciate their positive, unique contributions, and they help others achieve their potential. You see it in U2 in terms of how they value one another in sharing their economic profits. They've had each other's backs through difficult times in life.

Voice exists when everyone in the organization seeks the ideas of others, so just think about this, this respect, it reflects humility. That as a leader, I don't have a monopoly on ideas, that I need to seek and consider the opinions of others. Then in this culture of connection where voice exists, people share their ideas and opinions. Honestly, I share what I truly believe not what I think you want to hear, and that can be dangerous and sometimes painful, but there's a commitment to honesty in these types of cultures where connection exist.

Because there is the risk that people's feelings are hurt sometimes and when we have this dialogue and communication, the people in a connection culture where voice exist, they're very intentional about safeguarding relational connection. So if I say something in the heat of the moment. If I sense that I've hurt someone's feelings, I'm very proactive about reaching out to them to say, “I'm sorry I said that, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings.” We all say things we don't mean sometimes. It’s important to try to help preserve connections with people and be intentional about apologizing.

A case study from one of our client organizations, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Now, my wife, Katie, who works with us as a partner in our firm, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, and advanced ovarian cancer in 2004. At that time, her chances of survival were less than 10%. As you can imagine, that was a time where we experienced a lot of anxiety and stress. Katie and I have two daughters who were 10 and 12 at that time, so I can tell you that I struggled with the thought that I would lose my beloved best friend and that our daughters would lose this really wonderful mother who wouldn’t get to see the girls grow up. Thinking about that took me to a place of sadness that I had never experienced before.

We knew we had to be aggressive to treat this cancer, so after having her initial rounds of chemotherapy at our local hospital, we decided to go to the world's oldest Cancer Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in midtown Manhattan. I'll never forget our first trip there. We were walking down the sidewalk, and this doorman locked his eyes on Katie and greeted her like a returning friend. This is in New York city where nobody makes eye contact, so I was a little taken aback. Then I realized he recognized that Katie was wearing a wig. So he was being intentional about reaching out and connecting with a cancer patient who was coming into the doors of Sloan Kettering. We entered in the receptionist area, and the receptionist was calling everyone honey, that's also very unusual in Manhattan as you can imagine. The security people, the administrative people were wonderful, they were helpful and friendly.

Then we met her oncologist, Dr. Marty Hensley. She spent an hour with us educating us about the treatment options, answering our long list of questions. Dr. Hensley was upbeat and optimistic, and even though that day, when I was walking down the sidewalk, I was expecting to find a culture of death and dying, I discovered a culture of life and living. It was not like the cultures I had seen working most of my career on Wall Street. It really took me by surprise. It just made me more optimistic. This past January, actually, we celebrated Katie's 15th year of being cancer free from ovarian cancer.

Now, she did have one additional incident of breast cancer so she's a three-time cancer survivor now, but now she's healthy and thriving, and we teach workshops together. When I was at Sloan Kettering one time waiting for Katie, I came upon a group of people who are talking about employee engagement survey results in a lounge. I was able to hear them say how much they love their mission to provide the best cancer care. They talked about how much they loved the people they work with, and their patients and their patients caregivers, and I had never seen a group that was so connected and so committed to what they did, and it's no surprise that Sloan Kettering has been named as one of the top cancer centers in the United States for close to the last 30 years, so they've been wildly successful.

You see that vision, value, voice in their culture, they value one another, they value their patients. They make a huge investment. We actually do training there for first-time supervisors and ambulatory care and we help them create a connection culture. It's amazing how the new employees were coming into Sloan Kettering, they spend about three weeks in training. That's a huge investment and they're going back from time to time providing the additional training that really connects them in groups and cohorts of people they get to know well, it provides them new skills. They really invest in their people and you see the strong culture they have there.

In terms of voice, the employee engagement survey showed that they give their people a voice to express their opinions and ideas and they realize that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. So vision, value, voice really creates this powerful connection that helps organizations thrive.

The benefits of a connection culture.

  1. When you feel connected in your culture, you have a cognitive advantage, it's the superpower that makes you smarter, happier and more productive.
  2. When you feel connected, you give your best effort as a human being. That's called employee engagement. Employees who feel connected also align their behavior with the team and the leaders and the organization's goals. In some organizations, you find that people maybe are engaged, but they're going in different directions. So the organization, as a result, doesn't make as much progress, but when you have engagement and alignment, you really have powerful progress towards your objectives and results.
  3. Employees who feel connected, communicate more and that helps decision makers make better decisions.
  4. They care about the organization so they devote time and think about how do we improve our work, and that's innovation. That's another way of saying innovation. Those are five distinct performance advantages that add up to a powerful performance advantage in total for the team department, or organization, or a competitive advantage if you want to think of it that way.

Important personal practices. As a leader, you can't get what you don't have.

  1. Personally develop a connection mindset. You need to make sure that you have connection in your life, and that will help you lead people from a place of strength. This is a challenge today, many leaders are under a lot of stress, and if they don't have that connection in their life that's producing that neurotransmitter serotonin, they're going to be on shaky ground, they're not going to be the strongest, most resilient leaders that are really required to get through. Sometimes the things we're trying to do are very hard and difficult, and it takes resilience as a leader and wisdom about creating connection culture to achieve the ends that we're desiring.
  2. Cultivate the courage to connect. You need to make sure that as a leader, you boost personal connection so that you will thrive. That means developing a connection mindset which is part of what we've been doing today that you now know that you need connection to thrive. That's the connection mindset, that it's a superpower and you want it. And you need to develop the courage to connect because sometimes people have had some painful experience in life from a relationship and building supportive relationships can be scary to some people.
  3. Never worry alone. Sometimes we and this is part of our American culture that we're, we can do it all on our own, but the truth is, you can't do it all on your own. You're just wired for connection and you dysfunction when you have less than connection in your life. When you're running into difficulties, as you will when you're trying to accomplish great things make sure that you have confidants that you can process your life with, your troubles. It could be challenges in the workplace, it could be challenges outside the workplace, but you need someone who you care about, and who cares about you. By the way, it goes both ways, and it can't be just, they care about you, but you don't really care about them. It doesn't work then. If you build a supportive relationship where you care about them, they care about you, then it will help when you engage in conversation to talk through the challenges you're facing. It actually helps keep the brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, the front part of your brain where you make rational decisions. If you don't have that, if you don't have those conversations, and you're feeling overwhelmed from the stressors and obstacles in your life, there's a high probability of your brain activity will shift to the more than midbrain and the amygdala where there's a higher percentage that you may rash, a higher likelihood that you'll make rash decisions that are more emotion based than rational based. So never worry alone.
  4. Try to develop a group of friends or confidants who you can process your week with on a weekly basis, your highs and lows. Share the positive things. It's good for us. We need to be thinking about what we're grateful for, and we also need those confidants to process our highs, share our highs and our lows with. When they feel our joy from the highs, it connects us, because we have mirror neurons in our brain and it actually when they feel our joy it enhances our joy, and when we feel their joy it enhances their joy and it produces serotonin. The other part is when we feel their pain, it diminishes their pain and it also produces serotonin. It's important to attune to their emotions and trying to sense what they're feeling and when you do that, it has a more powerful effect of connecting you and helping increase their joy and diminish their pain.
  5. To serve is to live. When we serve others it connects us. The amazing thing is not only do people feel grateful when you help them in some way, but you benefit too. Psychologists call it the helper's highs. It boosts your positive emotion. If you're having a down day find somebody to help. When you could be volunteering in the community and helping people in some way. Even going into schools there are many programs that help kids who are struggling just by reading a book to them. There are a lot of ways to serve that really help us be more resilient.

How do you operationalize a connection culture?

  1. It’s important to have training like we're doing today to develop a connection mindset and to understand the attitudes, uses of language and behaviors that are connecting. That's number one, because, the way we think does affect our behavior, and that's all about creating a connection mindset.
  2. It’s important for us to also annually assess the subcultures we're in. Now, a lot of employee engagement surveys are all about connection and they work perfectly fine. We've developed our own culture assessment that looks at subcultures and measures if the people feel connected or disconnected. Then we break it down further, and they feel disconnected because they're being controlled, or are they just around people who are indifferent to their who they are, as people or what we call a culture of indifference.
  3. It's important to assess and when you assess that helps you determine what leaders or managers need help developing connection cultures and which leaders and managers are really good at. Because you may be able to pair them up. Pair a manager up who needs help with someone who's strong and he can become, they can become peer mentors to each other.
  4. It also helps to identify the people who are doing a great job connecting and just celebrate them. Celebrate their attitudes, their language, their behaviors that are creating a connection culture, and the team celebrate the teams that are creating connection cultures and it just sends a powerful message throughout your organization.

A lot of people are working alone today, and as you can guess they're especially vulnerable to not having enough connection in their lives.

They need to develop a connection mindset because it's dangerous if they’re working alone. You need to make sure that you get time in your calendar to connect with people. Whether it's getting out for a coffee break, or taking lunch with someone, or joining exercise classes where you're mixing it up with other people. You need those relationships and if you're just working remotely, that's not good. It's not going to be good for your health and it's not going to be good for your performance.

Secondly, when you look at younger workers today, data shows that they're the loneliest. In fact, the loneliest people according to Cigna Research that they did earlier this year, they studied 20000 American adults, and other research is consistent with this. They found that the youngest generations experience the highest loneliness. Then as you go out over time loneliness decline. Young workers are really longing for connection.

When you create connection cultures, you're going to attract the best young workers, and retain them, and engage them so that they'll give their best efforts. They'll experience joy at work from the connection and it will have a positive effect on your performance.

That really wraps up our time together and I appreciate it. I'm grateful for this opportunity to share our work that's really truly been life changing for me. And I hope it will be for you too. I hope you'll think about the people in your environment, whether it's in the workplace, in your community, your family that you can share some of this with if you see that they may be struggling with not having enough connection in their lives.

I hope that you will mark this day, begin connecting and just watch what happens. I promise you'll experience greater productivity, greater prosperity, and greater joy that comes from having an abundance of connection in your life. Thank you and I wish each and every one of you all of the very best.”