If there were a word for our chapter in history, it might be “interconnected.” Organizations, teams, movements, individuals, economies, ecosystems. Is there any part of our lives untouched by accelerating connectivity? Our curiosity and imagination—aka, advance into novelty—is weaving us together. And as we get closer, we can’t avoid experiencing the uncomfortable and exciting paradox of our differences and our similarities.
When we bump up against each other, we get more opportunities to delight in the new and different. And we also get more bewilderment, non-understanding, not-knowing or downright conflict. Whether you desire it or not, interconnectedness brings more contact, more friction, and therefore more creative tension.
Well, if we add to this observation the findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, we get some very compelling implications. Especially for the worlds of work and leadership.
Here’s the Harvard study In a nutshell: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” (That’s a direct quote from Robert Waldinger, fourth director of the now 75-year long study of adult development.)
Happier and healthier people have strong and warm relationships in their lives. Amongst all the other variables that we might think affect happiness and well-being (money, fame, accomplishment, raw food diets), it turns out that the quality of our relationships is what has the single biggest influence on the awesomeness of our lives.
Notice the word quality. It’s not just how many relationships we have—it’s the goodness of the relationships that matter.
Here in the midst of our highly interconnected lives, it might be easy to take for granted a sense of connection. I have those hundreds of facebook friends just a few clicks away. Can’t I banish loneliness anytime I feel like it? Not really. I think we all know how it’s entirely possible to be profoundly lonely in a crowd, in a team, in a marriage, or in a friendship.
Our ingenious connectivity might help us achieve greater well-being through greater connectedness, but not by default, and not on it’s own. And furthermore, if we aren’t attending to the quality of that interconnectedness, our virtual socializing could have a detrimental impact.
Here in the US we’re spending an average of close to 50 hours a week working. Combine that with our radically enhanced connectivity, and it’s pretty clear we’ve got a recipe for a lot more of the “creative tension” that dealing with our differences entails. That creative tension can lead to innovation, and it can also lead to breakdown.
What makes the difference? What traits and capabilities enable people to be successful and USE the creative tension of their differences in generative ways?
First, we’ve got to have a deeper understanding of the ways in which we differ. Not just on the surface, but in terms of how we see the world. Literally, how we “make meaning.”
Second, we need to have the emotional fluency to be a good relationship-maker. There’s no cramming for this exam: it’s how you show up, every single day.
And third, we need to recognize and own the new reality that in a web-like world, we are all informal leaders, and our way of being is our leadership style.
Lastly, we need human beings with growth mindsets for leaders. Leaders who understand that their way of being is their most powerful tool for influencing others. And we need to support and encourage these leaders by demonstrating that we care about how they show up—not just what they say.
A leader’s ability to value differences, to build rapport, to meet people where they are, and to include perspectives is what creates the cultural conditions for those precious good relationships that we can’t afford to live without.