It is impossible to overstate the importance of connection in healthcare. Whether you think of connection in literal terms like a heart electrode connected to a patient, or the interaction of the healthcare team as they work together to serve patients and their families, connection is critically important.
Connection links together people, information and functions in a way which integrates the contribution of those elements to accomplish a shared goal. The heart electrodes provide a vital link between the patient and medical team, equipping the team to assess the patient’s current state and determine the right plan for the patient’s long term care. In the same way, the human connection among team members knits together their knowledge and capabilities to accomplish a goal that can only be done through harmonious collaboration.
In this post we explore the relationship side of connection and the importance of the human feeling within a team, and between that team and those for whom they provide care.
What does connection look like?
Famed author and researcher Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Put another way, connection exists among people when each sees their connection to the shared goal and values their interdependence in the pursuit of that goal. When connection exists, people value and leverage one another’s capabilities. They work together to advance their shared goal in a manner which respects the needs of one another in that pursuit.
In our experience, key elements of connection include:
- Empathy: the ability to walk alongside others while helping to inspire greatness. Empathetic leaders are able to connect with the emotions of others, even if they haven’t shared a similar experience in the past. Through that emotional connection, they can move to a higher ground and purpose together.
- Belonging: the sense that you are an important and valued member of a group. Feeling appreciated for your strengths and contributions.
- Authenticity: the ability to be true and appreciated for your own personality and style, and able to act in alignment with your values.
- Vulnerability: There are many different types of vulnerability, but for developing connection, the focus is on cultivating openness and being willing to lean in fully to help others learn from you as you share experiences that shaped your life and the leader you are today. A vulnerable leader gives others permission to do the same in an environment of psychological safety.
- Curiosity: Consistent openness to learning and growing while suspending judgment.
- Collaboration: the ability to forge solutions in a manner which respects the needs of all those essential to achieving shared goals.
Obstacles to connection in healthcare environments
Here’s a real example of the struggles around connection in healthcare. During one of our coaching sessions, a client of ours shared a common predicament:
“‘What do you mean I need to focus on relationships? My hospital is the top performer and we have the top metrics within the whole system… I don’t know why people are leaving right and left. Our metrics are great. Wouldn’t they like to be part of a top performing hospital? Also, I don’t have time for that touchy feely stuff, we need to perform!”
Sound familiar? Clearly there is a gap in connection. Let’s break that gap down into common oversights:
▷ Confusing connection with communication
Often, leaders will confuse connection with communication: explaining the direction, setting clear expectations, holding people accountable to results and making sure they can get enough resources to get the job done. All of that is important, sure. At the same time, we believe that communication without connection will result in eventual mediocrity, disconnection from purpose, low performance, and disengagement. A top performing hospital devoid of connection will eventually lose its prominence. A leader may get compliance for a while but full commitment comes from embracing connection.
▷ The element of trust
This is where trust comes into play. Latin synonyms for connection include the words joining and union. Can you think back to a situation when you joined together to create a union with someone where trust wasn’t foundational? Often it’s tough to make progress or even trust that progress is possible in those scenarios, with members second-guessing one another’s intention, commitment, and personal agendas. By contrast, mutual trust and respect create a passageway to capture the felt energy around connection.
While trust deepens connection, the reverse is also true: Connection accelerates trust, increases influence and gains followership. Studies show there’s a strong relationship between trust and performance. Organizations that cultivate trust outperform those that are lacking in trust.
Your commitment to building connection makes all the difference in building strong, trusting relationships. Teams and individuals who feel a strong sense of connection with their leaders are less likely to look for employment elsewhere. You, as leader, may be their only saving grace to stay connected to their work, purpose, and perhaps even their loved ones.
Building your connection muscle
At MEDI, we define building the leadership competency of connection in the following way:
- You intentionally nurture and inspire interdependent, strategic relationships that function within a context of co-created, coordinated movement.
- You cultivate enduring trust and influence among diverse individuals, teams, and your community.
- Your commitment to shared values and purpose is reflected in all you do. You are seen as an exemplar of this.
Below are 11 ways you can create and increase connection as a leader:
- Clarify and communicate your core values. Just as important, match your actions to your values.
- Intentionally focus on the relationships where you want to build more connection. Success will be easier if you prioritize those relationships and make time and space to nurture connection. Healthcare leaders have a lot on their plate; it is important to prioritize.
- Help others learn about you. Be willing to be vulnerable, opening up enough for others to understand your purpose, values, and personal style. This is key to ensuring their experience of you reflects your true intentions; not the story they might make up about you.
- Practice full presence. Make eye contact, smile, open your physical posture and be mindful of distractions such as watching a clock or checking your phone. Be as fully present and open as possible.
- Deepen your listening skills. Allow others to talk and show that you have heard what they have said. Ask questions to clarify and help build upon their thinking.
- Be aware of your triggers. As neuroscience research tells us, we are triggered on a daily basis by multiple sources. Social threats affect our body as much as physical threats. The more we are aware of what triggers us and understand how we show up, the more opportunity we have to shift our response from a reactive place to a responsive place to strengthen connection.
- Provide and seek feedback. Research shows that we are less likely to give feedback to those that we do not feel a strong connection with. Instead of waiting for a strong connection to give feedback, provide feedback as a way to create a strong connection. To that end, offer feedback in a way that is uplifting and focused on helping the other person be the best they can be. It is also important to be open to feedback from others to better understand how you can be more effective in meeting their needs.
- Open yourself up to diverse perspectives and stories for why something is the way it is. Remember that your opinion is an opinion, not the opinion, unless it is something that is a full directive. Seek out other viewpoints and connect the dots to new possibilities.
- Practice being aware of others’ cues. By being intentional about noticing the emotional and behavioral posture (social awareness) of others, we set ourselves up for a better opportunity to connect.
- Recognize and value your interdependence as a team. Remain mindful of the reason you came together, recognizing your shared goals can only or best be accomplished by joining forces. The tendency may be to advocate for your own turf at the expense of connection and advancement of the shared goal. Seek to express the needs, wants and requests you have and align them with those of other team members, leaning into partnership instead of advocacy.
- Close the gap between intention and action. Remind yourself that, as Stephen Covey says, “we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.” Do your best to assume positive intent and watch the quick judgment around intention that gets in the way of connection.
Doing your inner work
Given the current healthcare environment, it can be tricky to find the mind space to be able to focus on connection. Financial pressures, competing priorities, staff burnout, increasing complexity — all of these can be a challenge to investing in connection.
Understanding our own state of mind can be the catalyst to recognizing the connection energy we are, or are not, giving and creating with our team. Practice vulnerability and sit down with each member of your team to ask them how you show up with each of the above strategies. In return, also provide them feedback on how you see them showing up.
Offer suggestions, support and encouragement. Provide each other grace and compassion amongst the chaos and noise. Allow space for the ability to laugh at yourself and each other. Use the strategies above to work through obstacles, remembering that success does not occur fully without connection.
Putting it all together: Why connection is important for healthcare leaders
Providing exceptional healthcare to patients and their families can only be achieved through the seamless coordination and integration of multiple people and functions. It is this reality that makes connection essential for transformative, effective leadership.
It is not about getting along; it is about performing at your collective best by working in a spirit of trust and mutual respect centered on your shared commitment to patients and their families. It is about finding the heart, inspiring it and others, and working from that place. And it is why cultivating connection is a core competency of contemporary healthcare leaders.
About the authors:
Cheryl Foss, a MEDI Leadership Coach, has more than 20 years of experience in leadership, team and strategy development, organization design, and change management.
Fellow Coaches Robert Porter and Amy King also contributed to the post. Both are seasoned executive coaches with rich experience as healthcare leaders and leading transformation in complex environments.
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