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Leader Connectedness: Why It's Crucial for Teams

in PODCAST

New research on leader connectedness and why it's so important for teams in the workplace. Learn what you can do to be a more connected leader.

headshot images of Emily Shaffer and Stephanie Neal with a photo of three teammates working together in the background, with the leader of the team standing up, smiling at her team to show that this podcast episode is about tips of leader connectedness and why it's important to teams in the workplace

A 480 PODCAST

Leader Connectedness: Why It's Crucial for Teams

25 minutes | October 5, 2021

00:00:00 00:00

In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, Emily Shaffer, Director of Research at global nonprofit Catalyst, and Stephanie Neal, leader of DDI's Global Leadership Forecast research, discuss leader connectedness in the workplace. Learn what it means to be a connected leader, how you can get better at it, and why it matters so much to your team, especially as many work remotely.

Beth Almes:

Hi leaders, and welcome back to the Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today's topic is something we're all really thinking about these days: leader connectedness to their teams. We were thinking about it before, and we're certainly thinking about it now in this virtual world so many of us are living in. And I'm so pleased to have two guests on the show today, Emily Shaffer and Stephanie Neal

Emily is Director of Research at Catalyst, which is a global nonprofit that helps companies shape more equitable workplaces for women. And Stephanie is director of DDI's own Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research, more often known as CABER. So Emily and Stephanie have collaborated on some research related to leader connectedness that I'm so excited to share that with you today. So Emily and Stephanie, welcome to the show.

Stephanie Neal:

Hi, Beth, thanks so much.

Emily Shaffer:

Hi Beth, thank you so much for having me.

Beth Almes:

So let's start with the basics here. What does it mean to be a connected leader?

Emily Shaffer:

Yeah, I can start out there. We found in our research that being a connected leader really has to do with two separate components: openness and vulnerability. And the openness component really is about someone who is willing to share about themselves while also showing a real interest in learning more about their employees. And vulnerability on the other hand, is similar, but it has to do specifically with sharing your emotions, even though that might be difficult sometimes, especially at work.

Stephanie Neal:

I really liked that, Emily. I think you hit on a couple of things that we've seen through for our Global Leadership Forecast Research as well, that it's really about leaders being able to connect to their employees and having that emotional vulnerability, being able to share experiences. I think that's spot on.

Beth Almes:

So as you've seen leaders, let's say attempt to do this, is it something that you see that comes easy for them or does this tend to be a big struggle?

Emily Shaffer:

Yeah, I think this can be really tough sometimes. It's difficult to be open and vulnerable in our lives outside of work, let alone at work. So in our research, we found that only 39% of people said that their manager was often or always open, and even fewer said that they were vulnerable, so only 24% of respondents said their manager was often or always vulnerable. So there's definitely room for improvement here I'd say. 

I will say though, that just because these numbers are sort of slow, it doesn't mean that over 60% of managers are just bad at connecting. I really think that a lot of times managers just don't really understand how important it is, so maybe they're not really focusing on it.

Stephanie Neal:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, that's a really good point. I do think it's always tricky when we see that it's such a trend towards negative, right? We saw that these were surprising numbers. To me I think that leaders aren't as good at expressing themselves and being open with their teams as they could be, and I think partially it could be just due to the kind of the climate and the context we're in, especially working virtually this is that much harder, I think, to make sure that you're connecting with your team and of course, feeling confident in that too, so I wonder if it's kind of one of those invisible behaviors where leaders don't feel like they're able to see with their teams as regularly, in kind of that comfortable environment that they're used to, to be able to feel more open.

And of course, vulnerability is always, I think, a tricky issue when it comes to leadership, especially as leaders get more senior in their organization, they might feel like they shouldn't show as much vulnerability to, that that's something that will have a negative impact versus the exact opposite where people want to see that they're human and want to see that they have just the same challenges as the rest of us. I really liked the way that you had summed that up as well, Emily.

Beth Almes:

You make a good point there, Stephanie, because when you say it's openness and vulnerability, then that's how you do that, that gets a little bit scary in terms of you kind of naturally wanting to pull back from that a little bit. 

So we'll dive into each of these a little bit more closely, but Steph, you had brought up vulnerability and that's one that is both a good and a bad trait, right? As a leader yet, yes, you want to be human, you're not here to say I'm perfect, but at the same time, you don't want to show your weaknesses to the team. 

You don't want them to lose faith in you or to feel like you're not up for the job or anything like that, like that's not good for you or your team if you feel too vulnerable. So when we talk about vulnerability under the lens of leadership, what does that look like? And kind of how much is too much or what's the right amount of vulnerability to show?

Stephanie Neal:

Yeah, I think you make a good point, Beth. There's a fine line with how vulnerable leaders should be, how far they should go. And Emily, I definitely want you to jump in here too, because I think you have some great examples, but seeing how leaders can make sure that they're clear about their personal and kind of business lines that they don't want to cross, of course, they need to demonstrate that they're vulnerable, but they need to also show that they have restraint. So Emily, anything you'd do jump in there?

Emily Shaffer:

Yeah, I think this is a great question. It is a tricky thing. I think first off the first thing is to change the idea of being vulnerable as a weakness. And of course being open and vulnerable specifically doesn't mean you share absolutely everything about yourself or you express any and all emotions you have at work, right? That's really not what we're talking about here. 

It's really about discussing your experiences and emotions, talking about difficulties, making space for others to really do the same. And being vulnerable can be something simple like, you say, "Gosh, working remotely has this benefits, I see that, but sometimes I really feel isolated." Or maybe it's something like... You tell your employees that you have something personal going on, so if you really see that I'm not quite myself, that might be why. And so it's not only expressing your emotions that make you vulnerable, but it's also that you don't shy away from the situations that might be emotion-laden. So it's really that sort of approach rather than avoid mindset that's key.

Beth Almes:

I love that way of phrasing it. So really, especially when it comes to vulnerability, it's not necessarily saying like, "Guys, I've got no idea what I'm doing here." But it's really more of being relatable to your team of if that's, this is a struggle for me too, or maybe I struggle... You know I say, "Yes, I struggle with keeping work within the specific boundaries of the 9:00 to 5:00 or whatever hours are supposed to be." So if you're struggling with that too, maybe that's a way for us to relate versus vulnerability necessarily being like, I don't know, I've got no idea. You're not in good hands here. So a really nice way to do that.

And you started talking a little bit Emily about openness as well because I had some questions there too. And it depends I think for a lot of us, whether we're more naturally introverted or whether we're extroverted. Some of us if we're a little more introverted, we struggle maybe to share enough with people who are like you're on a need-to-know basis. 

We don't want you to know unless we really think you have to, and then others are tempted to overshare, they want to tell you everything and they don't need to know all of this. So openness, a similar question, how do you start to find the right balance as a leader where openness makes sense?

Emily Shaffer:

Yeah, I think you've made a great point there that people differ in the amount they are going to share or  are comfortable with sharing. So I don't know that there's an exact amount of openness that is right per se, so obviously there are still personal and professional boundaries of course. And my asking you to be open, we're not really asking you to be that oversharer, as you just said, or to be someone who pries into their employees' personal lives, we don't want that either. 

I think what people feel comfortable with sharing, as we said, will vary from person to person and that's okay too. All of us have these different versions of ourselves like you were just talking about, so who we are at home with our family, who we are at work, who we are in social situations. And we shouldn't feel like we have to keep these identities completely separate, but that also doesn't mean that you have to share every aspect of yourself with your colleagues. And if you're not doing that, that means you're not open.

Stephanie Neal:

Yeah, I agree. And I do think it's sometimes hard as a leader to say how much is the right amount to your point? And I think a lot of people will restrain themselves. A lot of leaders I know probably are careful not because they don't want to overshare, but I think there are so many good models and examples out there of where leaders will just step into by sharing some of their own things that they're dealing with. 

Maybe it's going to pick up one of their children after work or having to make time to do something that makes them a little bit more humanized, but really is something that everybody can relate to. I feel like that's a piece that often gets left kind of unsaid in the workplace, and in the virtual workplace we're sometimes seeing it, of course, on our screens behind us that people have real lives that I think have helped open up some leaders. Some leaders that I know personally, that I even work with as peers, I've seen more of that human side of them in this time only because they were kind of forced to show it.

It was on the camera and then they talked about it, and I think it honestly made them a lot more comfortable and I've seen kind of relief wash over. Some of my friends who were like, "Okay, I don't have to worry about hiding that part of my life." So I really do think it can encourage their openness in the right way as well, but how everybody has to manage it is of course being authentic to themselves and not feeling like they're going too far in and sharing something they're not comfortable with.

Beth Almes:

I do want to dive into that virtual side too, because I think that's been such a game-changer in the past year and a half for so many workers. Even if you're back in the office, a lot of people are still working remotely, at least part-time or they have some folks on their team who are working remotely and there's been pros and cons, I think of seeing people's home lives. 

I mean, it's darn impressive when you can see someone like French braid hair while like going over all the last quarter's results, like they're just masters at doing it all. And then there are the folks who are eating their lunch on camera and you're like, "Didn't eat that part." So how do you think leader connectedness has really changed as we're in the virtual work world, as well as these hybrid situations now?

Emily Shaffer:

Yeah, I think for some people this massive shift to remote work or hybrid work in the past year and a half has been really difficult. We can feel disconnected and really isolated as I said a few minutes ago from our colleagues and definitely from our leaders. So on one hand, I think that there are things that we all I think are trying to do, like being on video chat and that can be really helpful, but we have to keep in mind, we can get burnout from that at the same time. 

It's hard to read people sometimes on video chat, especially things like their reactions and emotions which are clearly keyed to feeling connected to one another. And so, yeah, I think that we're also just really burnt out for a number of reasons. There's a lot going on in the world, and I think that can cause compassion fatigue, and we might forget to take others' perspectives and be empathic to one another.

Beth Almes:

So one of the questions I think, as we're in, especially in a remote work world, but even in general, even if you're in the office with people, how do you know if you're doing this well? What are the signs? Because I think there's a lot of people who might be like, "I'm firmly connected to my team." Only to find out their team does not feel that way at all. How do you know if you're doing this well?

Emily Shaffer:

Yeah, I think first that no matter how great of a leader you are, there's always room for improvement. So I suggest to leaders that they always assume that they can demonstrate more openness and vulnerability or any really other inclusive leadership behaviors, but really to gauge how you're doing, I think there's a couple of things you can do. 

I think leaders can identify colleagues who hold similar positions to them and maybe people who they think are doing these things well, talk about what it means to be connected and how they foster connection within their teams, and maybe incorporate those behaviors within yours.

In our report, we found that it means that when employees feel as though their managers are more open and more vulnerable, they feel themselves like they're able to be more creative at work, that they're able to be more dedicated at work. And that they're willing to go above and beyond what's required of them. 

So, of course, being open and vulnerable aren't the only things that impact those outcomes, but I think leaders can look to their team and to their employees to get a pulse on how connected they are. So, if you're seeing that folks are maybe a little less innovative than they usually are, or maybe aren't as dedicated as they have been, then maybe the first thing to do is to look inward to see if you could be a little bit more connected and maybe that can make the difference.

Stephanie Neal:

Yeah, I like that, and I do think this is where questions can really be such a helpful tool as well for leaders to be thinking about what they can ask of their teams, and it can be as simple as asking them what their experiences are, what even their preferences are, especially depending on if it's an employee that's struggling more at home or personally, or someone that maybe isn't as comfortable sharing of themselves that way, I think that's even the best invitation to get them to talk about it a bit more. 

And of course, I loved your example, Emily, of talking to peers, talking to people that you know you can trust who will have good similar insight about how to do this and who can possibly also reflect back to you if you're doing a good job or give you some other ideas and some feedback on how to do it better.

Beth Almes:

So for some of our managers listening, or some of the leaders listening, I think some of this can definitely apply at the... If you're a frontline-level leader who is managing their team directly, there's a lot of it here, but I'm curious if you feel like this concept of connectedness changes as you sort of go up the ladder? 

I mean, I think many of us are used to, once you get into the executive ranks, you expect these folks to be more buttoned-up or protect themselves a little bit more. Do you find that this concept still applies at these levels or does it look any different?

Emily Shaffer:

You know personally, I don't think this really changes much as you look up the ladder. I think that things like openness and vulnerability are just as relevant for CEOs as they are for frontline managers. Lately, I think we've been seeing that employees really want to hear from their CEOs. 

They want to hear that they're aware of, and that they're in tune with what their employees are experiencing, so it's just as important for CEOs to demonstrate these leadership behaviors as it is for anyone else, but Stephanie, I'd like to hear what you have to say since you have the new report out on CEO leadership.

Stephanie Neal:

Yeah, I absolutely agree, and I do think that this taps into an area where we've seen that CEOs and executives maybe don't feel as confident too, which is interesting. 

We did see throughout the pandemic and through the crisis that executives ratings in certain areas and actually all leaders ratings, especially of things like empathy dropped a bit, I think because it pushed people into some uncomfortable areas, maybe some areas they didn't feel like they had as much practice or experience that required them to try things out in a new way and possibly question, were they very good at demonstrating empathy and doing some of these things. 

So I do think it matters at all levels, it's just a matter of how do you exhibit it and how do you make sure you're really going back and getting that practice and reinforcement to feel comfortable with your skills.

And I think probably for senior leaders, sometimes they're a little hesitant or resistant to get that reinforcement and get that feedback, which is why it's so important I think for organizations to support that, and of course, for executives to themselves look to those opportunities to make sure that they're demonstrating it because it makes a difference. I think we've seen it definitely makes a difference in employees, how they feel about their leaders, but for sure at that level, it's going to make a difference for how the organization, the culture really feels about that senior leader.

Beth Almes:

Yeah, what an impact they have down the line when they can show a little bit of this vulnerability. And I remember hearing a story of a woman who was really uncomfortable showing any kind of like anything that she was struggling with until she saw a senior VP on her team say like, "Gosh, this is so hard." And it was like that was like the flood gate to be like, "This is really hard, so let's address this." 

Because it's a challenge for all of us, so rather than in front of the senior leaders were like, "Nope, no problems here." It's really now becoming that when these leaders are open to it and acknowledging how hard some of these things are, you can get an honest dialogue going about what you might actually do about it versus just sweep the problems under the rug.

Stephanie Neal:

Yeah, especially in challenging times, I think that's so important, because obviously people are feeling more maxed out than normal and less likely to probably feel like they want to be vulnerable. I think it's such an important example, a model that senior leaders can set.

Beth Almes:

So while you didn't have it in this particular study, I'm curious. So many people right now are headed for the door and I know what we've seen in some research is that people are often surprised, they're like, "I thought this person was doing great. I had no idea they were even thinking about leaving." So how do you think leader connectedness can play into some of that maybe stopping turnover before somebody's out the door?

Stephanie Neal:

Yeah, I definitely think it has an impact. I think we've seen anecdotal evidence a lot of it that shows that this matters. We do know that of course, people really respond to empathy and how much their leaders demonstrate it for them, and honestly, it's the number one skill that we continue to see matters in terms of people feeling like they want to stay and they have the best leader and even the best company that they can be working for. So I think we know it's an important issue. Emily. I want to give you a chance to weigh in, too.

Emily Shaffer:

Yeah, absolutely. I agree completely. I think empathy is huge here. Catalyst has a new report out on empathy, and what I really love about it is that they stress that empathy is a skill that you can build and it's something that you can work on, and I think that's exactly the case here with leader connectedness.

Maybe you're not as connected as you want to be right now, or you really do see that room for improvement, but that's okay because connection is something that you can build, and as Stephanie mentioned, we can see that filtering down into employees, which I think makes a huge difference in retention. I also think that what our research really does is debunks that idea of a fearless leader, and that, of course we want to have a leader who is prepared and instills a sense of stability in us, right? 

But employees really want a leader who they can see as a whole person, just as they want their leaders to recognize them as a whole person, and so I think that's huge for retention. So, it's impossible for us to be robots at work and just focus on task one, task two, task three. What's going on in our lives, of course, is going to impact how we do our jobs and how we feel as employees, and I think that's super important for retention as well.

Beth Almes:

In short, the less we treat people like robots, they might actually stick around, huh? Sounds great. So the last question that I do ask all of our guests on the show is to tell me about a moment of leadership that had an impact on your life, so whether it was a moment you connected with a leader, or even if it was a bad moment where you really didn't connect. Something that either inspired you or helped you to realize that you wanted to do things differently. I'm curious to hear your stories.

Emily Shaffer:

Yeah, I think, well, most of us. I've had some really great leaders and some leaders that weren't so great, but thinking about this question through the lens of what we've been talking about just now, in a previous position, there were some circumstances where people were really unhappy and they were struggling, and even though they spoke out and spoke up about it, they really weren't being heard by their leaders and it was being ignored and they were really being shoved to the side. 

And I think what the leaders really lacked was these elements of connection that we've been talking about. They didn't try to understand what was going on with their employees, how they were feeling, and they definitely shied away from approaching the situation and facing an emotionally difficult one. So it was one of those situations that has always stuck with me, and I think will in the future and really motivates me to do things differently.

Beth Almes:

Mm-hmm. How the avoidance really pushed people out instead of making anything better.

Emily Shaffer:

Absolutely.

Beth Almes:

How about you Steph?

Stephanie Neal:

Yeah, so that's a great example, I think, especially when thinking about this time and of course the topic. Mine is more specific to earlier in my career and there have been many, many moments similar to Emily where I feel a leader has either shown exactly the model of what would be great and what creates kind of a positive work environment or the opposite. 

This one's a more positive example and it really influenced what I think about leadership values and especially how to be a more empathetic and inclusive leader. I was in a meeting pretty early in my career when I didn't have a very big title or role yet, and it was a really exciting stretch assignment for me that I was getting put out there, and one of the people that was a bit more traditional in the meeting and had been with the organization for a long time said that I couldn't be the face of the project because I didn't have the title to match.

And the senior leader who was there, who knew me a little bit, but not super well quickly spoke up and kind of questioned does title really matter to our external customers and people that we're going to putting this information out for. And I have to admit, just that simple speaking up and then really asking others, challenging that traditional notion made such a huge difference that, you know? That alone could have been enough, but then afterwards they also sought me out, really advocated for me, became an informal mentor, and I think really demonstrated how important it is to include different people, new voices, new faces, but also show just how to do that. So it had a big impact early in my career.

Beth Almes:

Oh, that's such an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing. Thank you both for your time today. You can find Catalyst's research on their website around leadership connectedness. And as Stephanie mentioned, she leads DDI's Global Leadership Forecast. A lot of our other research can also be found on the DDI website. 

Thank you both for joining me today on the Leadership 480 podcast. And thank you to our listeners who took part of their 480 minutes to be with us today. Remember to make every moment of leadership count.

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