The endurance of great connections

Can you recall some strong connections with former co-workers?

At a wedding this past weekend I ran into two former NASA co-workers. I left NASA in 1997 after almost 14 years, and I rarely see any of my old friends from there.  But here I was, delightfully face to face with two of them.

One of them was Jeff who, like me, served as a middle level manager. He is still at NASA, and has since moved on to an upper management position. When we worked together, we were in the Facility Management Branch, answering to the same boss. Our branch was quite unique because it was a branch of seven managers.  Our boss John, who I still think of as the best boss in the world, often joked about how hard it was to manage managers. He said “It’s like trying to herd butterflies, only they’re bigger and stronger.”

I was thrilled to see Jeff at the wedding. After wrapping him in a huge hug, I said, “Jeff! It’s so good to see you!!! How are things going at NASA?”

“It’s pretty good, actually,” Jeff said. He gave a high-level overview of what he’s doing and where he fits in the agency’s picture. I was so proud of him for moving up the management chain. I always had great respect for him. Then I turned the conversation a bit.

“So, tell me…who is still around that I would remember?” He lifted his head, and stared off into the distance, as if he was fruitlessly scanning his mind for someone we would both remember. Then he shook his head in sadness.“I don’t think there’s anybody left that you would remember,” he said with some wistfulness and melancholy.

I could almost read his mind: “Those were the days.” He didn’t have to say it, but I’m sure we were both thinking it.  During the years that our group was together , we forged a powerful  bond. The work was tough, the schedule was grueling and the roadblocks unending. But we had a blast. The seven of us had a powerful chemistry and a lively camaraderie. We completely enjoyed each other, and as we wrestled through the rapids of our tough jobs, we managed to always laugh with each other, learn from each other and support each other. We built a fortress of alliances with each other.

It was so strong that even after 15 years, we could still feel it, and its absence brought on a sweet sentimental nostalgia.

Now, lest you think this is getting too touchy-feely, it’s not. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or woman; the connections you forge in your work environment can be powerful and long lasting, and can shape your group’s chemistry even long after the group is disbanded. I know that our boss John was greatly responsible for fostering this camaraderie. He didn’t know it, but he was addressing one of the deepest capacities of human beings: the need to connect. Connect to other people. Connect to a group identity. Connect to a greater vision or cause. We need to connect. And if we connect, we are on the road to flourishing.

There was no doubt that because of our group chemistry, we were able to get a ridiculous amount of work done, more work done than anyone thought possible. We were each other’s cheering squad, sounding board and feedback factory. And it was partly because we felt a strong irresistible connection to each other, to the group identity and to the bigger picture of NASA.

If you are a manager, what are you doing to foster this connection in your group? What are you doing to fill that inherently human capacity to connect? Here are some things you can do.

  1. Pick the right people. If you have hiring or selection say in who works in the group, consider the chemistry of personalities and choose people who you think will work well together. Our boss had the final say on who was in his group so he knew what kind of delicate balance he wanted to maintain. He chose well. If you don’t have hire/fire authority, your job of creating community may be harder, but it’s not impossible.
  2. Periodically schedule camaraderie building outings. We had a habit of going to lunch as a branch just about every Friday. Nothing fancy…just the food court at the mall. But spending time outside the confines of the office went a million miles to foster that connection.
  3. Protect the “specialness” of the group with perks and privileges. As government employees, we were limited in this area, but one of the most visible perks our branch had was space. All other offices were three or four people to a room. Ours were two to a room. We needed more privacy, and we needed more room, but having the less-congested room lent an air of unique identity to the group, and we knew we were a bit privileged. It made us feel special. And it fostered a loyal connection and a common identity.
  4. Project enthusiasm within the group. Our boss was jovial and fun, but he was also serious and authoritative when he needed to be. Regardless of whether he was joking or disciplining us, he did it with contagious and warm enthusiasm. He never diminished our dignity, or crushed our spirit. He genuinely wanted the best for us and from us.
  5. Provide a forum for every person to be heard, understood and helped. We had weekly staff meetings that were the highlight of our week. They were long and sometimes had intolerably dull spots, but we all knew we’d each get the time we wanted to brag, complain, explain, defend, question, pontificate, report or explore a topic. The best part was the unconditional acceptance we extended to each person. No judgment. No criticism. No shame. We did it because we learned it from our boss.

Fostering connections in your group can sometimes happen naturally, but sometimes you’ll have to be intentional to make them happen. It’s worth the work. It’s worth it not just because 15 years down the road your employees will remember it, but because IN those 15 years, you will develop leaders who will want to replicate that same sense of engagement. THAT is the mark of a great leader: one who develops other leaders.

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