Connection Before Content?

Posted: February 11, 2011 in Human Value, Organization Culture
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It’s Monday morning, five minutes past nine, the six staff meeting attendees are discussing their weekend activities.  The manager looks down at the agenda, looks at the clock on wall and says in a controlled but somewhat impatient tone “Okay, let’s get this meeting started.”

Actually, the meeting has started, but not in the eyes of the task focused manager.  The employees are reconnecting on a personal level prior to getting into the content of the agenda.  If the manager understood the importance of both relationship and task, he may have asked something like “So, before we continue, what was the most surprising or positive experience someone had this weekend?”  Or, using an approach that also connects the participants to the work, “Now that everyone seems refreshed from the weekend, what work are you most excited about this week?” (Hopefully, there would be answer; if not, there’s other work to do.)

This is “connection before content” in its simplest form.  It’s important enough to be consciously aware of and to plan for.  In longer or larger meetings, it is useful to determine the desired outcomes from both a business (task) and people (relationship) perspective.  This awareness ensures that connection exercises or activities are built into the design.

In early 2008, a colleague and I conducted focus groups to discover what made people feel connected.  The responses fell into three categories: 1) physical/environmental; 2) personal interaction; and 3) organizational practices and processes.  Below is one of the key findings:

A distinct impression that many believe when being asked to be part of a company, is that often means giving up something of one’s self; that being professional means being less human. Connecting on a personal level is critical to feeling connected on a business level.

“Connection before content” is not a new concept.  I have seen it described as a “Peter Block rule of thumb.”  Peter introduced the concept into the organization I was with in the early 2000’s. It is also addressed in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging (2009) in Chapter 13, p.146, in a broader and deeper societal context.

Before diving into the agenda, citizens need to be connected to one another. Whenever we enter a room, it is with doubt and a vague feeling of isolation. Connecting citizens to each other is not intended to be just an icebreaker, which is fun yet does little to break the isolation or create community. Icebreakers will achieve contact but not connection. Connection occurs when we speak of what matters about this moment. This is done most easily with questions.

While not a new concept, it’s one that’s worth repeating, both for use in the organizations in which we work, and in the communities in which we live.

Incite: As an employee, do you purposefully maintain the connections you have and build new ones? If you manage others, do you understand the importance of personal connections? Do you allot time in your meetings for them to occur?  Do you also ask the right questions to connect people to the work, higher purpose, and future possibilities?

Additional Resources: In addition to Peter Block’s book mentioned above, another book, Fired Up or Burned Out (2009) by Stallard, Dewing-Hommes and Pankau, provides a comprehensive model of the connected organization without calling attention to it in the book’s description.

  1. Paul L says:

    Great piece. The difference between ‘contact’ and ‘connection’ was an elegant way to capture what always feels awkward and wasteful about typical ice breakers. It would be interesting to see if connecting before ending a meeting would also improve how people act after the meeting and eventually how it impacts performance.

    Imagine a meeting that opens with a “Thank you” and moment to connect, and then ends with a similar “Thank you” and a message of connection, such as, “Your questions and insights are much appreciated and have put us on a better path than where we started the meeting.”

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