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'Connection Culture' says when workers thrive, companies do too

Companies with a 'culture of connection,' in which workers thrive, have a competitive advantage, author says

The dreary title of "Connection Culture" is suggestive of an old trick of second-rate management gurus: attaching an earnest label to an idea or behavior that most people already instinctively understand in order to make some cash.

But author Michael Lee Stallard, a business consultant from Greenwich, Conn., has a point in his new book, which, while sweeping in its scope, he manages to narrow down to make some practical suggestions for employers who want to change the culture of their organizations.

At the heart of his new book, "Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work," is the idea that people are the most important part of a business. And focusing on operations and financials is not only wrong, but commercially foolish.

Companies with a "culture of connection" — broadly speaking, one in which workers are able to "thrive for sustained periods of time" — have a competitive advantage.

Stallard spells this out, citing research that sounds plausible enough. Businesses with high "connection scores" boast higher levels of profitability and productivity than those with lower scores. The book is published by the Assn. for Talent Development.

The author also garners the findings of neuroscientists and endocrinologists to build his case, pointing out that "human connection" has been found to reduce the levels of stress hormones in the blood, making us more likely to make rational decisions.

What makes for the kind of culture in which these levels are kept healthy is highly subjective, of course, and it may be more achievable in some sectors than others.

Stallard attempts to draw up some broad definitions. He writes that humans have six needs at work: respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning. He offers suggestions for how employers can meet these needs, with practical advice on topics such as hiring and communication.

His exposition of the "connection culture" is best made through the anecdotes he tells about the companies that got it right, however. Such stories are memorable.

When Alan Mulally was introduced as the new chief executive of Ford in 2006, and was asked what car he drove, he replied without hesitation, "a Lexus … the finest car in the world."

His generosity to a rival did not do the company any harm: Mulally led Ford to 19 consecutive profitable quarters and, having raised shocked eyebrows at his introduction, was given a standing ovation at his retirement.

The paean to U2 with which Stallard opens the book, however, is less useful. The way the band functions, he tells us — by which he seems to mean its members' habit of remaining friends and sharing profits equally, none of which seems staggering — "is even more extraordinary than its music."

Allusions to his evidently heartfelt Christian faith also are jarring; evangelism can arouse suspicions about the real purpose of a message.

One of the strengths of "Connection Culture," however, is the way it underlines that the positive habits it describes are also essential to life outside work. The degree to which it does this is unusual in a business book — but it is probably essential to the credibility of this particular one.

Mian Ridge is an editor at the Financial Times of London, in which this review was first published.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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