Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would become focused on employee engagement. For most of my career, I worked on Wall Street. Along the way, I weathered four mergers and witnessed how the best-laid plans were often sabotaged by the failure to blend two newly joined corporate cultures into one. I found myself becoming increasingly aware of the importance of culture, and its effect on employees and organizational performance. 

As an investment banker, I interacted with a wide variety of leaders in diverse organizations. Within a few hours of being at an organization, I could tell what the culture was like. The worst cultures felt like dog-eat-dog environments where everyone was out for him or herself. The best cultures were more like dog sled teams that pulled together. And, of course, there were cultures in between those two extremes. 

By 2000, I saw that many cultures in business were changing for the worse. After reading Gallup’s research that concluded 70 percent of employees in America were disengaged, I wanted to do something about it. At the time I was chief marketing officer of Morgan Stanley’s Private Wealth Management Group, where I had helped put practices in place that engaged people in our business and contributed to doubling our revenues over a period of two-and-a-half years. I knew I could help other leaders by sharing these practices. 

In 2002, I left Wall Street and founded E Pluribus Partners, a leadership training, coaching, and consulting firm based in Greenwich, Connecticut. The firm’s unusual name was inspired by America’s motto, “e pluribus unum,” a Latin phrase meaning “out of many, one.” Our research discovered that connection, community, and unity—which is expressed in America’s motto—is key to engaging people in the workplace. It is the opposite of cultures that isolate people and make them feel unsupported, left out or lonely. 

With two colleagues, I wrote Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity. The book introduced the concept and practices of a “connection culture,” in which everyone feels like part of the team and wants to give their best efforts. After the book was published in 2007, doors began opening to speak, teach, and consult at a wide variety of organizations, including the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia, G.E., Google, the IRS, Johnson & Johnson, NASA, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, TCU and Yale-New Haven Hospital. In recent years I have had the opportunity to speak outside the U.S. as well. 

Three types of cultures 

In October 2013, we partnered with ASTD to offer the online course, “Essentials of Driving Results Through Employee Engagement.” It was well received, so I accepted ASTD’s invitation to teach it five times next year. 

In the course, we reframe the way people think about employee engagement by explaining that there are three types of psycho-social cultures that affect engagement.

1. Cultures of control. People with power, control, influence and status exert their will over others. As a result, the others feel powerless and disengaged.

2. Cultures of indifference. People are so busy focusing on tasks that they fail to invest the time necessary to develop healthy, supportive relationships that are necessary to sustain engagement.

3. Connection cultures. People care about others, they invest time to develop healthy relationships and their work is important to them because it provides a benefit to others. This bond among people overcomes differences that have historically divided people. These differences include gender, race, and sexual orientation. A connection culture is defined as language, attitudes, and behaviors that make people feel a bond of affection for and loyalty toward a group. 

Connection culture leads the way 

In cultures of control and cultures of indifference, many people feel unsupported, left out or lonely, even though they may not be alone in a physical sense. Indeed, people feel disconnected. So although they may show up for the paycheck, they stop giving their best efforts, stop aligning their behavior with organizational goals, stop thinking about how to improve the organization, and stop communicating fully with decision makers—especially when decision makers may not want to hear information that they need to hear in order to make optimal decisions. 

Conversely, in a connection culture people reach out to help others in need rather trying to control them or being indifferent to them. With a strong sense of connection, everyone feels included. Connection cultures help produce selflessness, virtue, goodness, empathy, altruism, compassion and generosity; cultures of control and indifference tend to produce selfishness, greed and deceit. 

To understand the power of connection in a culture, you must know that as human beings we are hardwired to connect and disconnection triggers psychological stress. Being in a stress mode for a prolonged period of time is damaging to the human body as resources, including oxygen and glucose, are allocated to bodily systems that are likely to be used for “fight or flight” purposes at the expense of other systems in the body. The immune system is one such system that is deprived of resources when an individual is under sustained stress, which results in making the individual more susceptible to sickness and disease. 

When we feel connected to a group of people, we feel safe to be open and express ourselves, to learn, to take action, to be who we are rather than put on a mask that is ultimately stifling, suffocating, and sucks the life out of us. We also are more enthusiastic, energetic, creative, and better at problem solving. 

Connection improves wellness. Other things being equal, a group of people living in a connection culture will be more productive, more innovative, more profitable and more sustainable as a group. 

Connection culture leaders 

Leaders who create connection cultures communicate an inspiring vision and live it, value people, and give them a voice. Think of it this way: Vision + Value + Voice = Connection. 

Chuck Schwab, the founder of Charles Schwab, is a great example of a leader who created a connection culture. Schwab’s mission is to provide the most useful and ethical financial products in the world. Chuck lives that mission. He cares about helping customers and doing the right thing. He values employees, too. 

I remember when I first became chief marketing officer of a business Schwab had recently acquired and brought me in to help grow. Early on Chuck asked me what I thought of the advertising campaign that the firm was currently running for the business unit and if employees were proud of it. I told him the truth. They weren’t proud of it. 

Chuck didn’t miss a beat in telling me to get rid of it and find a campaign that would resonate with potential customers and employees. I was thrilled and felt proud to work for a leader who cared so much about employees. 

Chuck also gave employees a voice. He regularly traveled to meet with Schwab’s employees, keep them in the loop and hear their ideas and opinions. Chuck Schwab connected with employees and he expected the leaders under him to follow his example. As a result, Schwab had a highly engaged workforce who felt connected to Chuck Schwab and to the company that bears his name. 

Seeking connections 

Many people today come to work with a connection deficit so they are looking for connection and community in the workplace. Currently, more people live alone in American than at any time in history, and they are less involved with their families and communities that they have historically been. They long for connection. 

This is especially true with younger generations. Researchers at the global marketing firm McCann Worldgroup were surprised at the results from their 2009 global survey of 16-30 year-olds. Of the 7,000 surveyed, more than 90 percent rated “connection and community” as their greatest need. As the researchers put it, “To truly grasp the power of connection for this generation, we can look at how they wish to be remembered. It is not for their beauty, their power, or their influence, but simply for the quality of their human relationships and their ability to look after those around them.” 

Employee engagement surveys and programs will never be enough to engage employees. Until leaders create connection cultures that make people feel like part of the team rather than feel unsupported, left out, or lonely, they will continue to be disappointed by the dismal levels of employee engagement in their organizations.