I was recently on holiday in the South of France. Being on a well-earned break, I’d taken the drastic step of switching on my Out of Office, selecting a limited-Wifi destination and signing up to a social media sabbatical. So, there wasn’t a great deal to do. Which is perhaps why, on my way out the door on my morning run, my attention was drawn to a bright green leaf making its way across the patio, held aloft by a determined army of ants. In a bid to put off my run for just a bit longer, I decided to watch them as they carried their precious cargo to a precise destination situated on the other side of the tiles.
It was fascinating to witness their wordless collaboration, shared goal, speed and mutual need for survival. I also spied a lone ant, staggering around with a massive piece of grass, desperately trying – and failing – to get the attention of the others, expending vast amounts of energy in his futile task.
So how does an army of ants relate to the theme of authentic connection?
Being able to forge meaningful connections is an essential skill for leaders, managers and anyone who runs their own business. As humans, we are hard-wired to merge together for comfort and survival. Research shows that human connection is more closely linked to happiness than wealth, fame and even physical health. The positive feelings we get from co-operating with others activate the ‘reward’ areas of the brain in a similar way as the satisfaction of hunger. Conversely, it has been shown that when we experience social rejection, we feel it in the same areas of the brain as physical pain.
And yet, we have all had moments when we’ve chosen to be the outsider. Some people loathe networking events and would rather dash through a shopping mall naked than make friends and influence people. Others choose to remain independent, deliberately shunning the company of others or valiantly going it alone. The term solo-preneur been coined to describe people who are walking their own path, as opposed to entre-preneurs who collaborate with others.
I’ve definitely been the lone ant. I’m very happy in my own company, loathe team sports, have my own business and don’t like being told what to do. An extroverted introvert, I’m very happy delivering talks and running workshops, but really need time alone to recharge. Despite my preference for solitude, after 10 years of running my business, I’ve realised that if I hadn’t put the effort into connecting, and doing so authentically, I would not be here today.
So, what are connection and authenticity and how can we develop them for ourselves?
Connection and authenticity are two vital qualities for leadership and essential for people who wish to develop gravitas. In researching my book, I found that authenticity is an internal quality which reflects who you are on the inside and connection is an external quality which reflects how you show up on the outside. In terms of your impact and influence, authenticity is what draws people to you and connection is what stops you from being aloof – a trait which just doesn’t work in business today.
As well as the business benefits of connecting authentically, knowing how to build genuine and real relationships can make a huge difference to how we handle challenging personal events. Just before my French holiday, I suffered a personal crisis that taught me that if I were to survive emotionally, I would need to take my head of the sand and connect to people in an authentic way.
So rather than just answering ‘I’m fine’ to people’s ‘how are you?’, I chose to answer truthfully. When I was feeling sad or vulnerable, I chose to allow people in. And the payback has been huge. Not only have I experienced a huge amount of support and empathy, I’ve found that my relationships have deepened and the burden has lightened. I’ve also noticed it’s affected how I speak on stage and the response I’m getting from people. It feels deeper, braver, more real.
So how can we hone our ability to connect in an authentic way? And what are the benefits to our lives and business?
Here are three tips:
1. Extend your network: don’t just focus on people you know, go broader. In my book, I talk about dividing your network into local, national and global contacts, spending time on people who live on your horizon rather than in your backyard. When you go to a networking event, don’t just talk to the people you like or who are like you, make a beeline for people who seem different, even people who naturally turn you off. Don’t just go to the obvious places, go elsewhere and seek out people who will appreciate you for what you uniquely bring – and make sure you share it.
2. Find common ground: in getting to know people, you may need to go on a mutual fishing trip to find topics in common. Themes such as geographical provenance/destination, past experiences, current affairs, popular culture or sport may provide the ‘hooks’, but you will need to build on what you uncover, it’s not enough to ask a question and then reciprocate with an ‘oh that’s nice’ followed by silence. Instead, stay with their train of thought and keep probing for happy coincidences. And remember, this stuff doesn’t just happen naturally – we all have to pay attention and make conversation.
3. Seek rapport: when you’ve found that common ground, you’ll be on your way to building rapport. This has to be real and genuine, not forced. Research shows that when rapport building is fake or disingenuous, it feels creepy and our skin actually crawls. So choose to listen to people at a level beyond gap searching (where you mainly listening out for opportunities to jump in with your own thoughts and experiences) and search for who they are underneath, respecting how ‘deep’ they are ready to go and which topics may offend. Remember, rapport can take a while to build and be lost in a moment.
Although it can be hard to forge new connections, the benefits can be huge. Not only will you build long-standing, mutually beneficial relationships based on trust and respect, at a personal level, you will find kindness and understanding, essential when times are hard.
You may be wondering what happened to those ants… When I got back from my run, you’ll be pleased to hear that the leaf had reached its rightful place of safety. The piece of grass had been abandoned and the ants were nowhere to be seen. Maybe the lone ant had found a place with the others on the side of the patio.
For more information on how you can develop authentic connections, check out Leading with Gravitas. If you’re interested in how to enhance your leadership gravitas, sign up to our next Gravitas Masterclass or contact us to discuss the programmes we deliver in-house.