March 31, 2023 / Esther Choy

Today’s leaders not only have to make strategic business decisions, they are given the behemoth responsibility of building and cultivating corporate culture. In a recent PwC Global Culture survey, its importance was shocking. They found culture was understood to be the key indicator of an organization’s performance and adaptability: “66% of C-suite executives and board members believe culture is more important to performance than the organization’s strategy or operating model.” What’s more, 69% of leaders credited their ability to adapt successfully during the pandemic to their corporate culture. [1] But what does it really mean to have a culture that increases performance and adaptability?

Corporate culture dictates how we relate to our colleagues, or bosses, our clients and our customers. At work, as elsewhere, we have a deep need to be seen, heard, and understood. Healthy workplace relationships have a significant impact not only on an employee’s job performance and a company’s bottom line, it increases the chances of leading a happy and healthy life! This revelation is simple and yet shocking: Warm, positive relationships keep us healthy and happy.

This is what Dr. Marc Schulz wants you to understand from his new book, The Good Life, co-written with Dr. Robert Waldinger. Their book is based on the world’s longest running study on human life known as The Harvard Study of Human Development. Since 1938, researchers have been periodically and holistically surveying more than 700 participants. The study has grown to include over the initial participants’ spouses and 1,300 of their descendants. The through line of the decades of extensive data from this research? Relationships help us remain happier and healthier throughout our lives.

Because work is where most of us spend a majority of our waking hours, it is essential to cultivate a corporate culture that values friendships with our teams and colleagues— for our own health and happiness, and for our team’s. Dr. Schulz and I had a chance to discuss the significance of his research for business leaders.

“We want to be able to benefit from the connections that we have at work, both with colleagues, even folks that are in positions of power above us, people that work for us, and also the folks that we may serve at work, whether they’re customers or patients. It’s really important to figure out a way to get as much value as we can from those connections,” said Dr. Schulz.

The Risk of Loneliness

Yet much of the protocol on workplace relationships is based on what you can’t do: Don’t date, don’t comment on family situations, don’t compliment the way someone looks. There are good reasons for protecting workers. In all relationships, we are vulnerable when we share about ourselves. This is especially true at work where power dynamics like an organizational hierarchy and salary are involved. Yet what so much of what human resource regulations miss (or even deny) is the chance to have meaningful connection.

When we don’t have these kinds of positive connections at work, the results are dire. Not only does research demonstrate that loneliness at work causes employee performance suffer, prolonged loneliness is a health risk more dangerous than obesity, raising the odds of death in a given year by 26%.

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Despite economic and health incentives to take loneliness seriously, workplace loneliness has been on the rise and all the more so exacerbated by the pandemic. EY’s survey of more than 5,000 workers in Brazil, China, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. found more than 80 percent of respondents indicated they have felt lonely at work and nearly half reported their loneliness has increased since the pandemic.

“So what we found when we looked at our participants,” says Dr. Schulz, “is that it’s very simple. What people would like at work [is] to be seen and heard and understood. It’s those three simple things. So how can employers create conditions in which people feel seen, heard and understood? That’s the key question.” The right approach to leadership communication can make a big difference in creating a corporate culture that values connection between colleagues.

4 Practical Ways Leaders Can Influence Corporate Culture

Model Healthy Relationships

Dr. Schulz suggests that leaders must model healthy workplace relationships that are engaged and appropriate. Find ways to share personal (but not private) stories about yourself and ask your team to share too. An interesting but innocuous story about yourself might be anything from your favorite dish at the local lunch place or what you did with your family over the weekend. Personal, but not private stories are a great way to introduce yourself when you want to show your character and move beyond your credentials and work history.

Listen. Truly listen.

Listen not to sell something. Listen not to respond. But rather, listen as if you are reliving the experience that the person is sharing with you. Listening with your whole body shows that you are paying attention and care about what they are saying. Sharing stories about ourselves is a great way to model what it looks like to be open and vulnerable, but truly listening to other people as they are being open and vulnerable is even more important. This is how we can create a corporate culture that values relationships.

Make an effort in a virtual world

Think of the times pre-covid when we walked to a meeting or took a coffee break with our colleagues. Since many of us remain in hybrid or 100% remote workplaces, we must make an effort to replicate these kinds of opportunities for informal connection. Dr. Schulz follows Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murphy’s suggestions: “As we move to online or to more hybrid situations, we might take out five or 10 minutes at the start of a Zoom meeting…where people check in.”

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Assess your own social fitness

One of the key elements in The Good Life is the idea of social fitness. Dr. Schulz explains it like this: “We need to be intentional about our social connections, because they’re so valuable to us.”  To make sure we are being intentional, we must reflect on our relationships at work. You can use Dr. Schulz’s two simple questions as a starting place:

  • Which relationships are invigorating or energizing? Could you find more ways to connect with them?
  • Which relationships are depleting or difficult for you? What is it about those relationships? Is it something that you’re struggling with? Could you do something to improve it? Could the other person? If not, you may want to try and spend less time with that person, if you have that freedom or ability to decide that.

The Bottomline

The answer to a strong corporate culture? The answer to effective teams and productive employees? The answer to workplace loneliness and healthy lives? Relationships. “People feel grateful for being heard and listened to and understood.” Dr. Schulz’s research has shown that as we intentionally strive to see, listen to, and understand our colleagues and clients at work we will all benefit. “We learn to grow more trusting, and it allows us to be more vulnerable.”

What’s your next move to deepen relationships on your team?


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