How to Cultivate Connection and Growth in the Modern Workplace

How to Cultivate Connection and Growth in the Modern Workplace

Mike Greto explores the transformative impact of communication, belonging, and innovation in workplaces. He emphasizes the value of a mission-driven culture, diversity, and engaging in meaningful questions for growth.

Mike Greto: Co-President / Chief Revenue Officer at Aperian. Connect with Mike on LinkedIn.

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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

Mike: At Aperian, we're fortunate to be a mission-driven organization, which naturally attracts individuals passionate about contributing to something greater than themselves. Despite this, ensuring that every voice is heard, especially in a virtual or hybrid setup, remains challenging. 

To address this, we have implemented various forums catering to different communication styles, acknowledging the diversity in how people express themselves due to cultural contexts.

This includes asynchronous communication like Slack channels, coffee chats with management, and company calls. We aim to connect with people in ways that resonate with their preferences, whether that’s work style or geography.

Admittedly, we don't always get it right. We've received feedback indicating that some decisions made have made people feel excluded. Balancing progress with inclusivity is tricky; we strive to honor everyone's voice and ideas, even though not all feedback can be actioned. Our approach centers on transparency—acknowledging the feedback, explaining our decisions, and encouraging continuous input and innovation.

This emphasis on varied communication methods and inclusive dialogue is crucial, yet it's often overlooked.

The ability to listen and communicate extends beyond formal meetings, as some may hesitate to speak up or may need time for their ideas to mature. Acknowledging these nuances is vital for fostering an environment where every voice matters.

In our work, our approach involves “frame-shifting” and adapting our communication strategies to meet people where they are, ultimately aiming to foster a more inclusive and effective workplace.

What does it take to get an employee's full attention and best performance?

Mike: Achieving an employee's full attention and best performance starts with ensuring they understand the company's direction and vision. Employees, including my team, frequently ask about our future goals and our overarching vision. The clearer they are about these aspects, the more engaged and better performing they can be. Our employees are drawn to us by our mission, but sometimes the bigger picture doesn't always reach every department, such as finance or IT, who may not interact with clients daily. Everyone must grasp not only the immediate goals but also the broader purpose of our endeavors.

As leaders, it's our responsibility to articulate this vision clearly and to communicate it repeatedly.

Making the connection between each employee's role and the company's trajectory is vital. For example, explaining to the product team how their work contributes to sales can reveal the significance of their software development tasks, illustrating their contribution to a larger narrative.

Furthermore, listening to employees is paramount. Everyone wants to feel heard, and acknowledging their input fosters a sense of belonging and importance.

Drawing inspiration from David Brooks' "How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen," the practice of asking meaningful questions and focusing on positive aspects rather than negatives can greatly enhance team morale and performance. This approach, similar to the principles found in "Breaking the Rules," emphasizes the value of positive reinforcement and effective communication.

In my experience, smaller companies like ours have an advantage in maintaining a close connection between employees, the product, and the customers. This can be more challenging in larger organizations. However, with deliberate effort, big companies can also create an environment where employees feel valued and understand how their work contributes to the company's success.

What do people really lack and long for at work?

Mike: In the context of a post-COVID world, with a significant shift towards hybrid and remote work environments, a common sentiment among employees is a feeling of isolation. This sense of disconnection is especially pronounced in individuals working multiple time zones away from their manager and/or teams.  While remote work offers flexibility and economic benefits for employers, such as reduced real estate costs for example, it also introduces challenges related to team cohesion and individual well-being.

The key element missing for many is the sense of connection and belonging that comes from spontaneous, non-work-related interactions, often referred to as "water cooler talk."

These informal conversations, difficult to replicate in a virtual setting, play a crucial role in building relationships and fostering a sense of community among colleagues.

Addressing this gap requires intentional efforts to go beyond the structured agendas of virtual meetings. Taking the time to inquire about personal aspects of team members' lives, such as family or hobbies, can significantly enhance the sense of connection. This approach not only improves relationships but also contributes to greater efficiency and satisfaction at work.

Additionally, understanding and respecting cultural differences in how relationships are formed and maintained is crucial. For some, building a task-oriented relationship is paramount, while others may prioritize personal connections before focusing on work-related tasks. Adapting communication and interaction styles to meet these varied preferences is essential for creating a more inclusive and connected workplace.

In summary, the longing for connection and a sense of belonging is a significant gap in today's work environment, especially among remote teams. Addressing this need requires deliberate actions to foster personal connections and understand the diverse ways in which people prefer to engage and build relationships.

What's the most important question leaders can ask employees?

Mike: A pivotal question leaders should pose to their employees is, "Why are you here? What motivates you? Is it the financial rewards, our mission, or the opportunity to utilize your talents? What initially attracted you to join us?" This inquiry is crucial, extending beyond the confines of a job interview and warranting regular reflection and discussion.

The essence of this question is not to challenge employees' presence in a confrontational manner but to genuinely understand their aspirations and ensure their experiences align with these motivations.

It encourages deeper exploration of whether the organization fulfills the individual's personal and professional needs and whether they are genuinely thriving within this environment.

This approach enables leaders to move beyond merely assessing task completion and project involvement to considering the broader, more holistic aspects of an employee's engagement and satisfaction. It invites a candid examination of whether the employee's work-life integration is meaningful and fulfilling, asking, "Why dedicate so much of your time and energy here?”  Such conversations are vital for ensuring alignment between an employee's personal goals and the organization's mission. When there is synergy, it creates a powerful and productive work environment. Conversely, recognizing a mismatch in expectations or aspirations can lead to constructive discussions about potential changes or, if necessary, amicable separations. Regularly engaging in this dialogue is essential for maintaining a motivated and aligned workforce.

Asking this kind of question also leads to a second important question leaders can ask employees: “How can I help you do your job better?” I believe that the pendulum is swinging from a traditional hierarchical “command and control” model of leadership where decision-making authority comes from the top, to more of a “servant leadership” model that tends to emphasize support, collaboration, and the well-being of the team.

Again here, leaders must be cognizant of cultural norms when posing this question to employees. For example, traditionally, Asian leadership styles have been influenced by cultural values such as respect for authority and the importance of harmony which have often led to a preference for a more command and control approach. However, there's a notable shift towards more participatory leadership styles, influenced by changing global business practices and the evolving expectations of the workforce. As I mentioned earlier, people want to know that their voice is heard and I think this question speaks to that.

What's the best or most important question employees can ask leaders?

Mike: From the perspective of enhancing communication and alignment within an organization, employees should consider asking leaders about the company's direction and the leader's vision for the future. A crucial question to pose is, "Where are we going, and how do you, as our leader, plan to guide us there?" Understanding the overarching goals and strategies not only clarifies the company's trajectory but also fosters a sense of purpose and belonging among the workforce.

Following this foundational question, an equally important follow-up inquiry is, "How can I contribute to achieving these goals? What role can I play?" By asking how they can assist in the company's progress, employees demonstrate initiative and a willingness to invest in the collective success of the organization. Such questions not only encourage a collaborative environment but also empower individuals to seek opportunities where they can make a meaningful impact.

These interactions are valuable for leaders as well, providing insights into the team's engagement levels and uncovering potential areas for further clarification or support.

When employees express a readiness to contribute and seek guidance on how best to do so, it signifies a healthy, dynamic relationship between leaders and their teams, ultimately contributing to the organization's success.

What's the most important question we can ask ourselves?

Mike: In my efforts to foster a culture of experimentation and innovation, I've found immense value in asking myself, "What's the worst that could happen?" This question was introduced to me by a psychologist friend during a challenging period, and it has significantly influenced my approach to leadership and risk-taking.

By continuously questioning the worst-case scenarios, we can reframe our perspective on risk, making it more manageable and less intimidating.

This approach encourages my team and me to embrace new challenges and innovate without being paralyzed by the fear of failure. It prompts a mindset shift that is crucial for growth and development, both personally and professionally.

Additionally, another critical self-reflection involves considering whether we are obstructing our team's ability to perform their best work. This question goes beyond the specifics of project management to address the broader implications of our leadership style and organizational processes. Are these processes facilitating progress toward our goals or creating unnecessary barriers? Reflecting on whether we are inadvertently getting in our own way or the way of our team's success can lead to meaningful changes that enhance productivity and foster a more empowering work environment.

What is your company's origin story?

Mike: Our company's driving force originated over 30 years ago from our founders' experiences and passion for bridging cultural gaps between Western companies and Japan. As economic interactions with Japan increased, they saw a need for better cross-cultural understanding and communication. This need led to the creation of innovative resources, like VHS tapes in the pre-internet era, followed by an online cultural database in the early internet days, all aimed at facilitating these intercultural dynamics. Today, we've expanded our mission to encompass a broader range of boundaries, including national, functional, gender, geographic, and identity boundaries. Our goal remains to enhance performance across these diverse boundaries, adapting to the evolving landscape of inclusion and cultural interaction. 

I noticed you have this new learning platform. Can you tell us more about it?

Mike: Our learning platform stands at the core of our mission, integrating self-assessments like the GlobeSmart® Profile and Inclusive Behaviors InventorySM, learning modules, and facilitated training to enhance self-awareness and cross-cultural understanding.

This platform enables individuals to explore their work styles and compare them with those of other countries and team members.

It's designed to facilitate better communication and collaboration within multinational organizations. Having been refreshed and developed over 20 years, the platform now serves as a foundational element of our training programs, aiming to make these invaluable resources accessible to companies of all sizes.

Is there a question you wish I would ask you?

Always my favorite interview question!

How about “What role does AI play in the future workplace?”

Mike: Everyone’s talking about AI and the disruption and opportunities it is bringing to our daily lives and workplaces. It’s an exciting time, and there is no doubt that AI is changing the way companies do business. Generative AI, in particular, significantly blurs the lines between what is “real” and what is machine-generated.  

As AI evolves, I predict that we will crave authentic, empathic human connections more than ever in our personal lives and the workplace.

So I’ll say that, while the advancements in artificial intelligence are undeniably transformative, it is emotional and cultural intelligence that will become a non-negotiable skill for leaders. Leaders who brush up on empathy and human connection skills will be best equipped to inspire, motivate, and connect with their teams in a future dominated by AI.