A Talk with Melanie Katzman, author of CONNECT FIRST

A Talk with Melanie Katzman, author of CONNECT FIRST

Why did you write CONNECT FIRST?

People are naturally wired to connect with each other, but in today’s workplace we stare at our phones, put on noise-canceling headphones, and accumulate followers and likes instead of relationships. We’ve forgotten how, when and why to connect with people. Despite all the technology we’ve come to rely on, the future of work demands a professional, practical way of establishing quality relationships by connecting with each other first as fellow humans, and then as coworkers and collaborators. 

I wrote CONNECT FIRST because I’ve spent three decades as a clinical psychologist and corporate consultant helping people learn how to do this, and I want to empower everyone to take action for themselves. These are scientifically based, actionable strategies that anyone can use to achieve personal success, increase organizational effectiveness, and—for those who dream of making an impact on the wider world—drive large-scale change. 

The best part? Most of the suggestions in CONNECT FIRST cost little to nothing and take less than five minutes to implement.

What are some examples of how we botch opportunities to connect with people at work?

Even though we know better, we often get the basics wrong. Many of us make the mistake of thinking that politeness is an optional nicety, and our emphasis on efficiency gets in the way of civility.

Here are some examples we’re all guilty of at one time or another: we walk into the office and don’t say “hello” to the people we pass. We start a meeting without introducing everyone in the room. We jump into email exchanges and don’t say “good morning” to the person we will be working with online all day long. We add a smiley emoji and assume a tough conversation or conflict has been avoided. We see something good (or bad), yet we don’t say anything to the person who could benefit from our observation.

Many people feel disrespected and alone at work, often for these and other reasons that can be easily remedied. Simple fixes include making eye contact, smiling, and calling someone by name, which ignite immediate connection and humanize the interaction. Other issues (resolving conflict with coworkers, fighting fear etc.) are more nuanced, and I delve into detail on how to deal with them throughout the book.

What trends have caused people to forget how to connect as humans in the workplace?

Technology is certainly a factor. Most of the time, we don’t actually speak to each other or see each other’s faces (one reason I prefer videoconferencing to meetings that are audio only). Remote work can be a boon for people who need flexibility or want to avoid long commutes, but you have to be intentional about connecting them to team members.

Another issue is speed—communication is now expected to be instantaneous. We often don’t stop to think about the recipient’s reaction to our message (or the time of day that we sent it). Unrealistic deadlines, limited resources and the sense that companies have to move lighting fast to be competitive all contribute to a sense of urgency that overrides our sense of what other demands our colleagues and employees are juggling. 

Even trends in office design can get in the way of human connection. Open office plans are meant to stimulate interaction—but what’s happened instead is that people consciously block each other out in order to get work done.

How does a lack of connection get in the way of our goals?

Reports of loneliness have reached an all-time high, and this sense of isolation (even when you are surrounded by people) means that many of us are disengaged—showing up but just going through the motions. And studies demonstrate that employees working in emotionally demeaning environments often miss information that is right in front of them.

Further, in the absence of quality relationships, we cannot establish respect, inclusion and meaning at work. CEOs or fresh graduates, office workers or telecommuters—regardless of role, we care, and we want to matter.

The good news is that establishing quality connections doesn’t take a lot of time or money. Small behaviors can have an outsized impact on organizational success and individual satisfaction.

Here’s an example that can help your career: rather than plotting to defeat or outperform your colleague, help pump up their ego. It may be counterintuitive to do that, especially with the office “peacock” or know-it-all. But usually that’s the person who is actually most insecure; and this approach can transform them from a rival into an ally.

You’re a psychologist and were on the faculty of Cornell Medical School. What does the science say about why people need human connections and what they do for us?

We are wired for sociability.  One of the most exciting findings to emerge from neuroscience in recent years is the brain’s inherently social nature. Brain monitoring studies have found that when the mind is at rest—say taking a break between solving two math problems—it defaults to social thinking—tuning into the thoughts and feelings of others.  

Why? It’s critical to our survival. People with positive human connections in their lives are less impacted by environmental stressors, have a longer life span, and have lower risk of disease. Oxytocin (the bonding hormone) is released when we connect with others; it makes us feel safe and energized. Strong bonds give us the courage to innovate, to explore and even to admit errors. 

By contrast, when we sense danger, we prepare to fight or flee. Being left out of a meeting or not recognized for our efforts are slights that trigger our defenses. This releases cortisol, which wears the body down. Bottom line: we should all strive to increase our connections to other humans, at work and beyond. It feels good and it’s good for business.

Why is tuning into people’s emotions central to connecting?

It’s essential to perceive when your coworkers experience social pain. Whether it’s a snub or a cruel word, that feeling is as real as physical pain. And although we’re attuned to our own experiences, we actually have the ability to scan and read the feelings/hearts of others—we just have to quiet our noisy, analytical “left brain” and tune in. The “right brain” is our emotional superhighway, hardwired to our heart.  

Here’s how it works. To tune into others, we have to be present. That means we put our devices down, turn unnecessary alerts and ringers off, and most importantly, mute our internal dialogue. Then pay attention to the person you are with. Engage your senses, see how they’re reacting, listen, and pause to ‘experience’ their mood. This requires that you invest time—about five minutes.  That’s it! 

What are some simple techniques for connecting to someone on a human level when you meet?

Here are a few. Look at someone: seeing and being seen is a sign of respect for the person you are looking at and also is a rewarding experience for you. Gazing at another individual and believing they are gazing back—an interaction in which you sense that your own behavior has an effect on another person—triggers our brain’s reward center.

People decorate their desks or cubicles with things that matter to them. Ask questions.  Be joyfully curious. It’s contagious!

Ask how someone’s job helps the company achieve its goals. Why does this line of work matter to the person you are meeting? What sacrifices do they make for success? Who or what influences the decisions they make? Look for a bridge from your life experience. Some people call this small talk, but there’s nothing “small” about it. This is being a person first.

How can managers make sure their teams are connecting as humans?

To start, invest in a few minutes of non-task related talk at the start of a meeting. On a call or in a conference room, start by quickly asking everyone to say what’s bubbling up for them today—what’s on their minds? When each person speaks for a minute at the start of a meeting, the quality of interaction improves. You have pressed the alert button, welcomed everyone into the room and gained insight into what might be motivating or distracting your colleagues. 

Have rituals to recognize success and a means of metabolizing failures. Gather your group once a week and ask your team members to share something they were proud of in the past week. Be sure everyone speaks. Hearing each other’s accomplishments is motivating for the group. Also build in time to report on something you would have liked to do differently. Allow your team to ask for help. What do they need from each other to succeed in the coming week?  

Believe it or not, say “got it” when you receive an email request (and ideally, add a time by which you will have an answer). It lets the sender plan their time and relieves the anxiety of wondering if anyone is paying attention.

And finally, go to where a person works or invite them into your space.  Help remote workers feel less distant. At the very least take a FaceTime tour of their offices. Ask what they see outside their window.

Why does connecting not only increase our performance but also our fulfillment at work?

Amid the dazzle of the digital age it’s easy to forget that old-fashioned human desire remains essential to achieving business goals. 

For example, people intrinsically seek joy, and we experience the connective power of joy when a team overcomes limitations and achieves their success. What are some of the ingredients? Having a clear role on the team; knowing how you will contribute to the desired outcome; knowing what the goal is; recognizing everyone’s contribution and being recognized for yours; knowing when the game is over; celebrating the results.

We also do better work when we connect to each other through meaning. Monetary compensation only goes so far. People are willing to trade money for meaning at work. You can unlock tremendous energy if you tap into employees’ passion. And you won’t know what matters to them unless you take the time to talk and be with each other. Creating a company mission statement isn’t enough—this has to be personal.  

What are some ways people could “make over” their daily bad habits to better connect all day long?

There are many! We’ve already talked a bit about the basics. Make each interaction count rather than taking those moments for granted. Seek out positive interactions with others. Research shows it takes about four or five positive interactions to compensate for a negative situation. One of the best ways to be positive is to be the person who pays attention to another human being.

Be a magnet—make sure people leave an exchange with you feeling smarter. Prepare conversational gifts. Look for ways to be additive. Cultivate an informed point of view (whether you are the manager or the person reporting to one).

Assume an abundance mentality. Praise others. Offering positive commentary on a colleague demonstrates your confidence and ability to make an assessment. It does not (as many people think) mean you won’t get credit for your work.

Fight fear and work to resolve conflict. Be willing to be a little terrified about who and what you don’t know. Explore the unknown. Hold forums to ask questions with no obvious answers. Take the first step to invite others in—actively and personally. And remember that deep connections are forged from—not in spite of—conflict.

How does following your simple suggestions lead to lasting impact?

In a volatile, uncertain world, fear can lead us to turn inward at the very moment we need to collaborate and innovate. Connecting with others widens your aperture, gives you the perspective of diverse voices, and increases your likelihood of success, at work and in the wider world. Connecting first as fellow humans is the key to building a truly inclusive culture.

The strategies in CONNECT FIRST can help people work across generations to challenge the status quo. Millennials know technology; boomers often excel at pattern recognition and acquired judgment. We can connect to solve seemingly intractable problems.

Above all, dream: work can pull the levers of social change. Every job can make a difference—if we remember to connect first.