When I think of the workplace, I often think of a scene from Nintendo’s Super Mario Kart. Beyond just an experience that defines childhoods around the world, the fast-paced racing courses and the use of items to sabotage opponents have an appropriate analogy for today’s workplace.
Specifically, one of the features of the game is the use of various power-up items obtained by driving into item boxes laid out on the course. These power-ups include things like Mushrooms to give players a speed boost and Super Stars that allow a driver to become temporarily invincible at the expense of damaging other drivers.
Things run fast and the slightest hiccup could cause you to lose in the zero-sum race.
We’ve been taught that if we can show up with a prestigious college degree (i.e. a shiny car), a bias towards moving fast (i.e. Mushrooms), and an individual willingness to outwork others (i.e. Super Star), then we can win this race to the top.
Pressing pause, are those the actual components that lead to success in the workplace?
When we optimize for shiny, fast, and independent, we’re playing in a zero-sum game. As we’re riding high on a Super Star, we’re excelling at everything we do, but at the cost of damaging our relationships with those that are in the same race as us.
Through this lens, work becomes transactional rather than experiential and companies end up in a hamster wheel of unending churn rather than incredible forward progress.
Redesign the race for Human Connection
When the race is optimized for high-octane, high-reward, individualistic competition, there is a huge cost to the organization in terms of human capital squandered.
One of the main reasons why it is hard to connect meaningfully at work is because it can be dangerous to show our true selves. We all too often hide behind an unspoken agreement to be ‘professional’ i.e. making decisions based on reason rather than feelings. This leads to transactional relationships in toxic cultures that only satisfy a narrow part of employee’s true needs. If we are not able to be ourselves, mental health problems, low productivity, burnout and high turnover follow.
It has been shown that high psychological safety, or the idea of presenting your true self without fear of criticism, is the most important characteristic in high-performing teams.
But in a race designed to go fast and reward zero-sum action, there is very little incentive to make yourself vulnerable to others.
We know that vulnerability leads to connection, but how much attention have we given this in the workplace? Currently, we focus on how to work faster and achieve more while forgetting the human element of the employee experience. While profit and growth should be at the forefront of business, it is all in vain when neglecting to take the necessary steps to build and sustain social ties in the workplace.
This is all to say that better connected employees, are better for business.
The thing that makes us better at our jobs and more fulfilled in the work we do are the people we work alongside. And yet other people are often the first thing to fall off our list of priorities.
When we optimize for human connection, those priorities change. This then increases the situations where we can present our true selves and form connections with others, which in turn allows for more data points we can use to make informed decisions. For the same reason why it is harder to flick off another driver if you make eye contact with them, it’s harder to read the short Slack message from Tammy in Sales with negative intent if you know that she’s juggling four projects at once and runs a nonprofit on the weekends.
Culture is built, like Legos, one brick at a time. There’s no hack and it must come from the top. But a great sense of community and a strong culture is the best insurance policy against the tumultuous nature of a growing business.
Optimizing for human connection would have been laughable 50, even 10, years ago. But in today’s economy, it is becoming the case that who we are in the workplace and how we connect with our coworkers is the most important metric for innovation and success.
Three barriers to Human Connection
Understanding the barriers that prevent human connection can be the first step in creating the outlets that allow for that connection to drive a business forward.
Barrier #1: Relevancy
When it comes to personal connections, Dunbar’s Number tells us the cognitive limit is 150 people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.
While there are companies with 30 employees that suffer from a lack of human connection (we’ll save that for a future article), if you’re an individual sitting at a company with 149 other employees, let alone thousands of other employees sitting on different floors or different cities, that’s more than our brains can handle. How do you efficiently decide where to invest your time and who with?
Additionally, in a world that is increasingly valuing double opt-in, how do we know other people are even open to connecting? We hear it all the time that we can become healthier if we talked to that stranger on the subway or in the grocery store, but what if they simply are just not open to wanting to have that conversation?
We only have so many bullets to shoot that a spray-and-pray approach leads to a cost-benefit analysis that favors keeping to ourselves.
Barrier #2: Logistics
Everyone is busy. So busy. Too busy.
When you’re staring at an overflowing inbox and an insatiable to-do list, how do you carve out the mental energy to coordinate back and forth on when to meet a coworker you’ve never had a conversation with?
While this is partly set by the culture expectations on how we prioritize connection, given how busy we are, even if we find someone worth connecting with, the barrier to finding time on the calendar is too high.
Barrier #3: Content
If you happen to hurdle the first two barriers and you find yourself face-to-face with a human you’ve never had a conversation with, what do you talk about that makes it not only worth your time, but a positive experience that is worth repeating over and over?
While the New York Times turned it in to a story on how to fall in love with any stranger, Arthur Aron’s research shows us that interpersonal closeness with strangers can be accelerated through a series of questions that we otherwise wouldn’t ask. How often do you ask your coworker to describe the last memorable meal they enjoyed? Or what has been the biggest driver of equality in their lives? Or something they’ve been thinking a lot about recently?
Small talk doesn’t lead to connection but deeper questions are awkward to ask on our own.
These three barriers, in a way, act like a Super Star power-up, allowing us to move faster in our race to the top but at the expense of being more productive, successful, and fulfilled.
Today’s employees face a lot of noise. So to achieve genuine human connection, there needs to be an experience that helps employees cut through that noise and efficiently opt-in to more experiences that facilitate human connection.
Driven by this goal to make human connection more accessible in today’s workplace led us to build Jam, a tool that integrates into your company’s calendar system and intelligently schedules face-to-face interactions between employees.
Jam is the first platform to facilitate relevant, seamless, and meaningful conversations in the workplace.
Relevant because employees tell Jam the type of connection they want and the personal interests or skills they’d like to be the foundation of the connection and the platform finds that employee within the organization. Seamless because Jam integrates into your calendar and suggests times where you and those you have been connected with are mutually free. And meaningful because Jam suggests deeper, more vulnerable questions that lead to meaningful connection.
We’re building Jam because we know that accessible face-to-face connections and actionable data on those connections can be the engine that moves business forward.
Beautiful things can happen for your business when you give your people not only the permission to get to know one another, but an excuse to be vulnerable.
With Jam, the barriers that make human connection hard are lowered and companies have the ability to create a culture of belonging, one connection at a time. In doing so, Mushroom and Super Star power-ups become less about the individual moving fast and more about the collective business progressing towards innovation and success.
That’s a race worth running.
Jam is live and is accepting early partners. If you work at a Series B+ technology company, we’d love to talk! Give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org.