"Connecting" Meta Competency

"Connecting" Meta Competency

Our ability to feel and create connection between ourselves and others is a second meta competency of leadership. Leadership is fundamentally social and relational. The adage goes that if no one follows you, you are not a leader – suggesting that leadership (“envisioning, enacting and enrolling”) does not happen in a vacuum, but rather between oneself and others. The contexts within which leadership is exercised (e.g., relationships, teams, organizations, etc.) are, in fact, social systems. Leaders demonstrate this competency in their ability to harness emotional experience, authentically relate with others, genuinely appreciate their own and others’ contribution and value, and create an environment where people feel psychologically safe and trusting, motivated, engaged, and committed. Emotion is the fundamental building block of this competency, and it is ruled by our limbic system. 44 At its essence, this meta competency is about sensing the emotional realm – perceiving your own emotions, attuning to another’s emotional experience, and mutually resonating together. Thomas Huebl uses this shorthand to describe this triad that is the foundation of the connecting meta competency, “I feel me, I feel you, and I feel you, feeling me.”

Thus, “connecting” resides in the affectual, emotional, relational aspects of leadership. At the individual level, connection is felt internally through emotions such as motivation, openness, loyalty, harmony, trust. These feelings of connection are manifested externally in the strength, quality, and resilience of relationships, the size and shape of relational networks, and the support reciprocally given and received (e.g., sponsorship, mentorship, financial investment, etc.). At the team level, connection shows up in the relationships between team members, as well as the team culture. At the organizational level, it shows up in the strength and size of internal and external relationship networks and organizational culture.

Amy Cuddy underscores the importance of connecting for high performance business leaders; her research shows that connecting with others is even more important than asserting dominance and competence. 45 Let’s explore some common and important ways the connecting meta competency manifests in leadership: emotional intelligence, relationships, trust and psychological safety, interpersonal communications, and organizational culture.

Emotional Intelligence

Our relational sense, popularly referred to as “emotional intelligence,” 46 47 enables us to sense, identify, regulate and harness our own and others’ emotions to enable progress. Emotions provide us with valuable information (think of emotions as feedback) 48 that can enhance problem solving, effective action, and relationship building. Conversely, the inability to understand and regulate emotion often creates barriers and problems that slow progress. (It is not hard to think of examples where this is the case – consider a manager with an uncontrolled temper or an organization with low morale.) Daniel Goleman identifies twelve emotional intelligence competencies: emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control, achievement orientation, positive outlook, adaptability, empathy, 48 organizational awareness, 50 relationship management, influence, coaching and mentoring, conflict management, inspirational leadership. 51 It is hard to argue with the value of these characteristics and skills to strong leadership and achieving results.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, paints a memorable picture of the comparative power of emotions and the cognitive mind in of The Happiness Hypothesis. 52 He uses an analogy of a small rider atop a large elephant. The rider represents our cognitive faculties; he thinks he is in charge. Haidt writes, “The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well, they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don’t always work together well.” 53 Leading with emotional intelligence requires understanding our elephants. Karen Dawson, of DeeperFunner Change, who’s official title is “Elephant Tamer,” is exquisitely articulate about the role that our elephants play in getting anything done. She says, “You can feel in a room, when the elephants are agitated. Until the elephants are calm, the riders cannot get anything done.” After all, as Chip and Dan Heath write, “Any time the six-ton elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He is completely overmatched.” 54


Leadership expert Diana Smith has spent her career helping executive leaders and teams strengthen their relationships, because she sees these relationships, and not the skills of the individual leader, as the key leverage point in building leadership capacity. 55 She writes, “Thirty years of work and research across sectors and around the globe have convinced us that more than any other single factor, relationships have the power to slow down or to speed up the ability of leaders and collectives to innovate, learn, and grow in ways that drive impact. When leaders invest together in building capabilities and relationships strong enough to harness basic differences, they innovate, learn, and grow faster, as do their teams, organizations, or networks, accelerating growth and expanding impact.” 56 57

Trust and Psychological Safety 58

Other leadership gurus focus on the importance of trust to the highest performance of leaders, teams and organizations. 59 At the individual leader level, in The Speed of Trust (doesn’t this title say it all?) Stephen Covey Jr. writes of personal credibility (with the four core pillars being integrity, intent, capability, and results) as the foundation of trust and how leaders create it. 60 At the team level, Patrick Lencioni names trust as the foundational essential element to high performing teams in his Five Dysfunctions of a Team framework. “Members of great teams trust one another on a fundamental, emotional level and they are comfortable being vulnerable with one another about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears and behaviors. They get to the point where they can be completely open with one another, without filters.” 61 Karen Dawson and Julie Huffaker of DeeperFunner Change put a novel twist on the same idea. They talk about the importance of “got your back trust” to building collaborative teamwork. To create this, they recommend interactive exercises that are designed to reduce “status” in the room. The essence of this “got-your-back-trust” is can be summed up by, “How do I feel in your presence? Do I feel smart, valued, cared about, important?” Paul Zak makes a compelling case for the role of high-trust cultures in organizational performance. Compared to people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress; 106% more energy at work; 50% higher productivity; 13% fewer sick days; 76% more engagement; 29% more satisfaction with their lives; and 40% less burnout. 62 63

Amy Edmondson has proven in her research that psychological safety (“a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”) is a key antecedent to speaking up and learning behavior, which are drivers of team performance. 64 65 Google’s rigorous team effectiveness research shows that psychological safety is far and away the most important of the five key drivers of team performance identified at Google (psychological safety, clear goals, dependable colleagues, personally meaningful work, and a belief that the work has impact) and a critical underpinning of the other four. 66 Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, bring in more revenue, and are rated as effective twice as often by executives. The second most important dynamic contributing to team effectiveness is dependability (“team members get things done on time and meet Google’s high bar for excellence”), which correlates roughly to Covey’s “Gets Results: What is your track record?” pillar.

Interpersonal Communication

Interpersonal communication skills are fundamental to leadership effectiveness, 67 because more often than not, the day-to-day work involved in “envisioning, enacting and enrolling” takes place in conversations between people. Furthermore, conflict and tension are most often expressed (whether productively or not) in interpersonal interactions. Each interaction is an opportunity for a leader to build, maintain or erode relationships. Productive, efficient communication (including the surfacing of tension) contributes to better decision-making, greater commitment to the decisions made, and faster and more effective implementation of those decisions. It can also contribute to employee engagement, learning and professional development, more efficient and effective information exchange and cross-team learning, and organizational cultures of trust, transparency, and productivity.

Even in mundane conversations, better outcomes are achieved when individuals have strong interpersonal communication skills, such as the ability to: 68

• Put forth their own views in ways that give others a clear window into their thinking, and that increase the odds others will help them see something they’re missing

• Probe to understand others’ views and concerns, in ways that shed new light on how they are thinking and what makes them tick

• Raise dilemmas and asking for help, in such a way that others can assist in navigating challenges; and offering help in ways that allow others to share the dilemmas they are facing

• Surface disagreements or concerns, in ways that build more common understanding and that open up creative options for resolving problems

• Figure out how they may be inadvertently contributing to difficulties and what they can do to help fix them

• Deal with emotions (their own and others’) in ways that defuse hot situations and advance progress.

When the stakes are high – those times when the results really matter and people feel vulnerable or threatened – these skills are all the more critical and exponentially more challenging. During these moments, the ability to sense and navigate strong emotion – yours and others’ – is essential.

While an individual with sophisticated interpersonal communication skills can single-handedly improve the quality of an interaction, interpersonal communication is still fundamentally relational. Thus, no matter how expertly you advocate your point of view, if the other person does not understand what you are trying to communicate, the communication has not been successful. Barbara Fredrickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, says “The success or failure of communication is determined by how thoroughly information from one person’s brain is transferred to another’s. Thus, communication is the ‘brain coupling’ between speaker and listener – a single act, performed by two brains.” 69 Success depends on this connection between the two people.

Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is the implicit and explicit set of values and behavioral norms in an organization that, together, determine “the rules of the game” – what is valued, how success is defined, how one gets ahead, the behaviors that get rewarded (and not) or are tolerated (or not). Culture is difficult to intervene on directly, because it is a by-product of many individual behaviors (and the formal and informal reactions to that behavior in terms of reward, ignoring or punishment, as well as the collective meaning-making of those reactions). Culture is crystalized in an organization in the formal structures, processes and systems. Culture is reinforced by and reflected in organizational rituals, yet it is not the same as those rituals. In fact, there is sometimes a wide gap between the espoused culture that is reflected in formal rituals and the demonstrated culture that is reflected in the general understanding of “how things get done around here.” 70 Yet, organizational culture is critical to organizational performance. Michael Mankins, the Head of Bain’s Organizational Practice, calls culture “the glue that binds an organization together and it’s the hardest thing for competitors to copy. As a result, it can be a lasting source of competitive advantage.” The wisecrack “culture eats strategy for lunch” expresses the power of organizational culture in driving performance – for better and for worse. Consider how people respond differently when they are treated with respect, like they matter, are important, have something to contribute. 71 Consider in your own experience the difference in your own contribution when you feel accepted, valued, and safe – and when you do not.

How to Develop This Meta Competency (“Connect More”) -- The Neurobiochemical Mechanisms That Generate Connection

There are three inter-related levels of connection that are rooted in neuroscience:

  • Awareness of your own experience (“I feel me”)
  • Attunement with another (“I feel you”)
  • Mutual resonance (“I feel you, feeling me”)

Our ability to sense our own internal experience is learned in relationship with others. John Prendergast explains how we first learn to connect to our own experience and through attunement by others:

The research on attachment theory clearly shows how important being attuned to by others is in attuning with ourselves. We first discover ourselves through the connection with and the subtle mirroring of others. When we are listened to, we learn to listen to ourselves. When we are felt, we learn to recognize and value our feelings. When this attunement is absent or lacking, we become a stranger to ourselves, distant by degrees from our own direct experience. If our core needs and feelings are ignored or devalued, we learn to suppress them. It is simply too painful and unsettling to stay open. 72

At the same time, our awareness of what is happening in our own experience enables us to attune to others’ experience. Dan Siegel speaks to the neurological underpinnings of this:

This self-knowing awareness, or autonoetic consciousness, involves learning to be open to whatever arises in our sensory world. We take in the incoming stream of signals from the outer world – through sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch – while also receiving input from the inner world of the body. This interoceptive capacity to be open to the signals of our muscles and bones in the limbs, and those from the inner organs of the torso (or genitals, intestines, lungs, heart), give us a deep sense of connection to ourselves, our bodily sense of being alive. When we take in nonverbal signals from others – their facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice or prosody, gestures, posture and the timing and intensity of their responses – their inner world is being transmitted to our senses. These signals are perceived by our nervous system, assessed by our mirror neuron regions, and relayed downward from these cortical areas through our insula to the limbic, brainstem, and bodily regions below. These areas and these processes are each a part of what has been called the social brain. The subcortical shifts that literally resonate with what we see in another are then transmitted back upward, through the insula, to the middle prefrontal area. We call this process resonance, and the circuits that make all this possible are the resonance circuits. These interoceptive abilities are at the apex of the resonance circuit, and we use our own sense of a bodily self to become open to the sense of the other. 73

Barbara Fredrickson has done extensive research on the neuroscience and biochemistry that underpin mutual positive resonance (which, counter-culturally in most professional settings, she calls “love”) and its role in performance. She defines this human connection 74 as “positive resonance, shared positive emotions, bio behavioral synchrony, and mutual care,” 75 writing,

Love is the momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person's biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other's well-being that brings mutual care. …Importantly, love is an emotion, a momentary state that arises to infuse your mind and body alike. …Love is connection. …Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people within interpersonal interactions. 76

She taps into a robust and ever-growing body of scientific research in the fields of physiology, neurology, biology, chemistry, and psychiatry to demonstrate the impact of shared positive resonance on people’s resilience, wisdom, and health. She points to “three main biological characters” in positive human connection:

  1. Your brain. When you and another truly connect, your brain syncs up with the other person's brain through your mirror neurons. Brain scans show this synchronicity of brain activity ("brain coupling") where the brain activity of one mirrors that of the other.
  2. Oxytocin, a hormone which circulates throughout your brain and body.
  3. Your vagus nerve (the tenth cranial nerve that runs from deep within your brain stem down to your heart, lungs, and other internal organs). 77

Fredrickson explains how your brain, oxytocin, and vagus nerve operate together synergistically, to create a virtuous cycle of well-being.

Your body’s positivity resonance operates within a much larger system… (that) includes your enduring resources – your physical health, your social bonds, your personality traits, and your resilience. …Love built those resources in you and those resources in turn boost your experience of love. …The causal arrow…runs in both directions at once, creating the dynamic and reciprocal causality that drives self-sustaining trajectories of growth. …By learning how to self-generate love, you can raise your vagus tone. And with higher vagal tone, your attention and actions become more agile, more attuned to the people in your midst. You become better able to forge the interpersonal connections that give rise to positive resonance. Through vagal tone, then love begets love. Likewise, evidence suggests that positivity resonance raises your oxytocin levels… (and) you become calmer and more attune to others, friendlier and more open. Here, too, your skills for forging connections sharpen, which increases your ability to cultivate positive resonance. Through oxytocin, as well, love begets love. Recall, too, that positive connections with others create neural coupling, or synchronous brain activity between people. (These) changes in the brain render the threat-detecting amygdala more sensitive to the calming influence of oxytocin. …Research shows how love reroutes the neural wiring of your brain, making it more likely that you’ll have healthier habits and healthy social bonds in the future. Through brain plasticity, too, then, love begets love.78

Fredrickson demonstrates that people with higher vagal tone are more flexible across a whole host of domains – physical, mental, and social. At nonconscious levels, they adapt better to ever-shifting circumstances. They are agile, attuned and flexible as they navigate the ups and downs of day-to-day life and social exchanges. These are qualities that many consider essential to strong leadership. 79

If authentic, caring connection between humans is the battery that powers social systems where leadership operates, then the feel-good chemical oxytocin 80 keeps the battery cells fully charged. Fredrickson’s research shows when your oxytocin levels are higher, you become calmer and more attune to others, friendlier, more open, and more empathetic. Furthermore, that positive resonance increases your oxytocin levels. Thus, positive resonance begets positive resonance, as oxytocin levels rise. Paul Zak’s research shows this same virtuous cycle in his research on trust. Not only does trust trigger oxytocin, but conversely, oxytocin also causes trust (the release of oxytocin reduces the fear of trusting a stranger, while simultaneously, increasing one’s discernment about who is trustworthy). Thus, when someone shows you trust, a feel-good jolt of oxytocin surges through your brain and triggers you to reciprocate, when appropriate. This simple mechanism creates a perpetual, virtuous trust-building cycle. 81 82 Because stress inhibits oxytocin, our ability to think creatively is significantly enhanced by a calm limbic system. When we feel threatened, our ability to create is diminished and can even shuts down completely. Thus, individual leaders can optimize their own performance, through optimizing their oxytocin. Similarly, if you want a group to learn or work generatively, increase the oxytocin in the room. 83 Oxytocin is the original performance-enhancing chemical, that humans naturally can manufacture through their own physiology and in relationship to each other.

By understanding the neuro biochemistry that underpins human connection along with the importance of human connection to high-performance leadership, we gain greater insight into how to build the leadership meta competency of connecting. Often this meta competency can be dismissed as the constellation of “soft skills,” suggesting either that it is not as valuable (i.e., less impactful or easier to gain mastery over) or squishy (i.e., impossible to define or measure or pinpoint how to skill-build). The neurobiochemical research shows that this meta competency is based in hard science and the performance research shows that meta competency is one of the most powerful drivers of leadership performance. 84 Furthermore, both suggest that these skills, like any others, can be learned and taught.

Key Points Summary: The “Connecting” Meta Competency

Leadership is exercised in relationship with other people; the connecting meta competency includes the social, emotional and relational capacities that fuel high performance.

Leaders demonstrate this competency in their ability to:

  • Sense, identify, regulate and harness our own and others’ emotional experience to enable progress
  • Authentically (and skillfully) relate with others to build relationships that are capable of surfacing and creating value from differences between people and diversity within groups
  • Genuinely care about others, as well as appreciate their own and others’ contribution and value
  • Create an environment where people feel trusted, motivated, engaged, and committed – to contribute their best selves and best effort.

Emotion is the fundamental building block of this competency, and it is ruled by our limbic system. There are three inter-related levels of connection that are rooted in our neurobiology:

  • Awareness of your own experience (“I feel me”)
  • Attunement with another (“I feel you”)
  • Mutual resonance (“I feel you, feeling me”)

Human psychology and neuro biochemistry underpin the connecting meta competency. Early childhood attachment creates the foundations for this meta competency; however, it can be developed throughout life.

  • Physiologically, our brain, oxytocin and the vagus nerve interact in a powerful reinforcing system dynamic to build connection.
  • Shared positive resonance boosts physical health, healthy social bonds, positive personality traits, and resilience, which in turn boost shared positive resonance.
  • Vagal tone promotes greater attunement to others, which promotes greater shared positive resonance, which then drives higher vagal tone. (Higher vagal tone also drives higher agility and flexibility in the face of challenge.)
  • Trust triggers oxytocin and also oxytocin increases trust, by both reducing fear of strangers and increasing discernment about who is trustworthy. (Also, oxytocin drives creativity and thrives in a calm limbic system; stress can diminish oxytocin and shut down the ability to create.)

Emotional intelligence, relationships, trust and psychological safety, interpersonal communications, and organizational culture are all examples of where the connecting meta competency manifests and plays a critical role in achieving performance.

© 2021 Carolyn Volpe Cunningham