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Q&A: Exploring the Importance of Connection at the Positive Business Conference

By Bob Needham

This year’s Positive Business Conference hosted by the Ross School of Business will focus on the theme “Meaningful Engagement in a Fragmented Time: Connecting with Self, Others, and Society.”

At the conference, which is planned for a virtual format May 13-14, Michigan Ross faculty member Monica Worline will introduce this theme of “Connection” during the opening session. Worline recently answered a few questions about the concept and its value, especially in times like the present. 

What makes the concept of connection vital to our professional or work life, as well as our personal life? 

Worline: Research across a number of disciplines — business, psychology, sociology, neuroscience, developmental life sciences, marital counseling, clinical and health psychology — comes to a pretty striking conclusion: The quality of our interpersonal connections is a primary determinant of our health, our longevity, and our fulfillment with our work, our personal life, and our family lives. Whether we are focused on professional or personal roles, the quality of connections between people profoundly influences our quality of life.

We talk about three types of connection — with other people, with society, and with ourselves. Connecting with ourselves might seem like the most challenging. Why is that important, particularly in a work setting, and particularly now?

Worline: As a part of examining this idea of connection, much of my focus has been on connecting through instances of suffering and distress. I often use the word “compassion” to talk about that.

In these times, we especially need to offer compassion for our own suffering, which is a form of connecting to ourselves. Many of us are exhausted from adapting to pandemic life, whether it’s remote schooling or remote work or adjusting to use of protective equipment that limits our human contact with one another. Many are also exhausted and distressed by ongoing political divisions, social ruptures, financial struggles, and racial inequalities that have become even more pronounced during the pandemic. As we feel more and more exhausted, we need to turn inward with care for our own well-being. It can be useful to adopt new rituals, get in touch with nature, and offer oneself kindness as part of connecting with ourselves. 

Of course, many of us are doing this personal work of caring for ourselves while we’re also trying to meet the needs of our employees or understand the pain that our clients and our customers are going through. Connecting with ourselves with more kindness and compassion can help us also connect as colleagues or as managers. Leaders often struggle with this — to understand their own connection to themselves and their work, so that they can find new ways of renewing themselves so that they can in turn help others be resilient through this tough time.

Obviously the pandemic has made connection of all sorts harder. Has it made anything easier? Has the way that we're living and working now opened up any different opportunities to make connections? 

Worline: Yes. When historians and scholars look back on this period, I think we'll see many profound effects, not all of which are negative. Connection certainly becomes harder in many ways. But many people were living overscheduled, hyperbusy lives where they never had a moment to pause, and we’ve seen that shift. More people have made time to renew friendships or deepen relationships with family. For them, the need to go more slowly and to be more cognizant of connecting with other people — even though it meant using technology to do that — actually deepened their connection and gave them more opportunity for connection rather than less. Slowing down and changing our habits of busyness has reshaped our landscape of connection.

The other thing that I know from our teaching work and from talking to students is that although they really miss being at the university in person, the experience of the technological classroom, for many of them, is actually more connected in many ways, rather than less. In the technological classroom, the opportunities to participate via chat panels or Q&A forums, and the new ways that professors can facilitate hearing many students’ voices, has expanded in-class participation. People have become more familiar and comfortable with many electronic collaboration tools that allow them to share ideas without the fear of public speaking. And we can invite guests into our classes and events from all over the world without the time and financial burden of travel, which has expanded the global participation of many in all kinds of online conferences and events. I think this is a change that is beneficial and will persist after the pandemic subsides.

Do you think that this experience of the pandemic will permanently change the way we connect in person in the future? 

Worline: I hope so. I'm hopeful that people will take time to be reflective about what carries into the new normal in a way that enriches their lives. I’m hopeful that the value of slowing down will stay with us. I’m hopeful we continue to diversify participation in classrooms and in university events. I’m hopeful that we can reach beyond the university in new ways and connect to society for even broader impact. If we learn lessons about caring for these kinds of relationships, we could emerge from the pandemic more connected in some ways.

However, I'm not optimistic that all of this will happen easily. A lot of what I hear right now in the media, and just listening to people in daily interactions, suggests that they can't wait to get back to life as usual. And as human beings, we are really good at doing what we've done before. It would be easy for us to fall back into habits of disconnection that we had before the pandemic. That’s one reason I am happy to have this as the theme of this conference, and hope to provoke some thoughtful discussion of post-pandemic life that is richer in human connections. 

How has the recent social and political upheaval in our country affected our ideas of connection?

Worline: The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other people at the hands of police has ignited a discussion of connection across race as well as other forms of difference — an urgent discussion that needs more investment and more care. Right now it is too easy for race, class, and other kinds of social separation to feed a lack of empathy and to create more disconnection.

The globe is filled with spaces where we don't know how to relate to each other well. Yet we all have the opportunity, every time we have a chance to connect with another human being, to learn about their experience and to become different ourselves by virtue of our connection with them. 

There's a lot of work going on in all different social worlds, including the world of business, to change the way that people can connect to themselves with pride and confidence and to also be invited to connect with others, no matter what background they bring into a room. I’m hopeful that more people will be able to connect with themselves with greater compassion for the cultural and social wounds we carry, and as they do, they can also offer more understanding and compassion to others. Along the theme of connecting to self, other, and society, we can connect to our inner strengths in new ways that help us recognize those strengths in others who may have different backgrounds, and we can join together in collective work from this shared basis that helps us have more positive impact.

Part of reinventing connections in a fraught time is learning to honor the strength and the beauty in every single person that comes into our circle, including ourselves. The possibilities for doing that have opened up tremendously in the past year. Yet the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, or not knowing what to say or how to act, is also heightened in fraught times. So it’s time to double down on seeing the best in people and learning to honor and celebrate that beauty. Being a human being living in this moment, it's likely the most important part of the work we have to do.
 

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Monica Worline
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