Build High-Quality Connections

By Jane E. Dutton

Jane E. Dutton explains why high-quality connections (HQCs) are critical building blocks for bringing out the best in people and organizations. She explores the benefits of HQCs, and the strategy pathways to achieve them, as well as how to form organizations that can foster such connections.

The Value of High-Quality Connections

High-quality connections contribute to individual flourishing and to team and organizational effectiveness.

Barbara Fredrickson, who studies the power of positive emotions in connection, suggests these moments of connection start people on an upward spiral of growth and fulfillment. For leaders, tapping into the power of high-quality connections means taking seriously the evidence that this form of person-to-person interrelating is at the root of critical individual and collective capabilities. The following are just some of the benefits of high-quality connections:

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1. People who have HQCs are physically and psychologically healthier.

2. Higher-quality connections enhance a person’s physiological resources.

3. People in higher-quality connections tend to have greater cognitive functioning. High-quality connections also broaden people’s capacities for thinking.

4. People in higher-quality connections are better at knowing who to trust—and who not to trust.

5. When people are in HQCs at work, they tend to exhibit more learning behaviors.

6. When people are in higher-quality connections at work and when top management teams have greater-quality connections between them, they tend to be more resilient (i.e., bouncing back from setbacks more effectively).

7. When people are in HQCs at work, they tend to be more committed and more involved, and they display more organizational citizenship behaviors.

8. When people are in higher-quality connections at work and teams have higher-quality connections, individuals and team members are
more creative.

9. At the organizational level, more HQCs enable greater overall employee commitment and engagement at work.

10. At the organizational level, more higher-quality connections enable relational coordination, marked by shared knowledge, shared goals, and mutual respect, which is associated with greater organizational effectiveness in terms of greater efficiency and higher-quality performance.


The beauty of high-quality connections is that they do not require significant time to build because they can be created in the moment. Meaningful investments of time and attention can further strengthen quality.


Strategies for Building High-Quality Connections

Pathway 1: respectfully engage others

Respect, or honoring another person’s existence or value, is a state that is created in interaction with other people. Respectfully engaging another person is accomplished through behaviors that signal that one person exists and is important in the eyes of another. There are at least three different moves that leaders can engage in to respectfully engage others and to foster the building of HQCs.

One of the most potent ways is through presence, or psychologically and/or physically being attentive to another person’s existence. Conveying presence means showing up bodily for another person, whether in someone’s physical or virtual presence. We explicitly remind others with our displays to stay attuned to and to be with another person. For example, turning off one’s phone or physically moving away from the computer can be potent signals that one is ready, present, and receptive to connection with another person.

The beauty of high-quality connections is that they do not require significant time to build because they can be created in the moment.
Respectful engagement also happens through effective listening and communicating supportively. Effective listening requires both empathy and active engagement. Empathy implies being tuned into what another person is saying so that one can imagine what the other person is feeling and meaning. Being an active listener means being genuinely responsive to the person who is speaking through moves such as paraphrasing or summarizing what another person is saying, asking questions, or soliciting feedback. Supportive communication is a quality of communication that involves attending both to what is said and to how it is said in ways that provide direct, descriptive, and actionable information that another person can hear and use. Supportive communication involves making requests and not demands, which invites a form of engagement that is voluntary and receptive, leading to a higher-quality connection.


Pathway 2: Task-Enable Others

At the heart of task enabling is the core idea that higher-quality connections form if we facilitate another’s success or performance on a task or a goal. Of all the options for building high-quality connections, task enabling is often the method most explicitly recognized by work organizations. For example, when organizations assign mentors or coaches to facilitate another person’s development, they are formalizing a task-enabling role. They are betting it will make a difference for a person’s performance or growth. However, most task enabling happens informally, when one person reaches out to help another because they sense that they have something to offer and can make a difference. The most effective task enabling involves matching the resources provided to the task at hand and the specific style and needs of the person. Sustained task enabling builds and supports HQCs, and works best when a continuous learning process is in place. Both people are soliciting and providing feedback that matches enabling resources with the particular needs of the person engaged in the task.


Pathway 3: Trust Others

Trusting another person is a pathway for building HQCs. Trusting means being vulnerable and relying on another person to follow through on their commitments. Trusting involves paying attention both to what you say and what you do, as well as to what you do not say and do. For example, good trusting moves include sharing resources, granting access, delegating responsibility, being open, and seeking input. However, trusting to build HQCs also means not monitoring and controlling excessively, ignoring input, acting inconsistently, or accusing another of bad intentions. Trust is hard work, especially if one has grown up or worked in contexts where it is a rare or misused condition. Despite these challenges, trusting moves are potent contributors to high-quality connections that make interrelating smoother, more efficient, and more enjoyable.


Pathway 4: Play

All species play, and humans at work are no exception. What is sometimes overlooked is the importance of play in building connections. Play at work is often associated with innovation and creativity because it fosters new knowledge and develops cognitive skills. However, the role of play in building connections — especially ones where people are energized and sense mutual regard — is often missed or underestimated. Leaders and employees can enact numerous moves to engage play, either in formal forums such as meetings or at informal gatherings such as celebrations. What is most important to remember about this pathway is that it exists as a powerful and low-investment option for building HQCs.


Designing Organizations That Foster Building and Maintaining High-Quality Connections

Leading for sustainable excellence in an organization means taking actions to create and to institutionalize a context where HQCs are the norm and the expected form of human-to-human interrelating for employees, customers, suppliers, and all relevant organizational stakeholders.


Reward High-Quality Connection Building and Relational Skills

Leaders have several options for formally and informally rewarding effective connection building. Some leaders create team-based awards where a portion of an employee’s incentives are tied to collective as well as individual performance. The use of team or group incentives focuses attention and motivation around collaboration, which fosters the building of high-quality connections. Some leaders also encourage HQCs through the creation of spot awards or peer-controlled rewards, which allow for the recognition of excellence based on a peer’s contribution to collective performance. Finally, leaders can encourage the building of relational skills (e.g., social intelligence or effective helping) as part of talent development, providing further incentives for creating and building a workforce that is sensitive to and invested in bettering their capacity to build and to sustain HQCs.


Building High-Quality Connection Routines and Pratices

Routines and practices are repeated activities and ways of doing things that become typical and normative in any organization. Multiple routines and practices foster HQC building. For example, some organizations explicitly select employees who have relationship-building attitudes and competencies. Others routinize significant peer involvement in employee selection as another means for building HQCs when a person begins their organizational membership. Still others utilize onboarding practices that are explicitly designed to foster rapid and significant quality connecting for newcomers. Use of relational onboarding practice means giving priority to opportunities that enable newcomers to connect with the appropriate people, instead of overwhelming them with information. Finally, practices used during routine meetings can be potent means for fostering connections. For example, making sure people are introduced in ways that equip others to engage and to trust them, and facilitating people to be well prepared for meetings, are simple but potent practices to bring about high-quality connection building.


Model and Value High-Quality Connection Building

The use of team or group incentives focuses attention and motivation around collaboration, which fosters the building of high-quality connections.
It is well known that leaders’ behaviors model and influence what is appropriate conduct for organizational members and thus are critical shapers of an organization’s culture. Leaders can convey values and priorities that elevate the importance of connection building, setting the tone for others to see these behaviors as important and valued activities. As an everyday example, leaders can act to be present, use face-to-face contact, and engage in active listening, demonstrating knowledge, understanding, and caring for the needs of various organizational constituencies. But leaders can also model values and behaviors in crisis, affecting members’ motivation to connect in high-quality ways with others. Leaders’ actions in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were important shapers of members’ connection-building activities. As an example of crisis leadership, Phil Lynch, president of Reuters America, headquartered in New York City, took immediate actions to continuously and personally communicate and to be present with all his employees as they wrestled with both human losses and technical challenges associated with that day’s horrific events. Leaders’ actions toward others during times of duress and challenge leave an indelible impression of appropriate and desired ways of interrelating that last far beyond the immediate circumstances.


Putting It All Together

The quality of the social fabric is built one interaction at a time. When we make these interactions high quality, we build personal strength, and we also strengthen and enrich the fabric that sustains, grows, and facilitates others.


Re-printed from Dutton, J. Build High-Quality Connections. In J. Dutton and G. Spreitzer (Eds). How to be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers).


About the Author

Jane E. Dutton is the Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration and Psychology at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. She is also the co-founder of he Center for Positive Organizations. Her research focuses on the power of positive connections at work, job crafting and compassion at work. She has published over 100 articles and written or edited 13 books. She teaches and consults about how to institutionalize positive practices in work organizations to unlock human strengths and build capacities at the individual and firm levels.



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