employee engagement

We Are All Orphaned Children: The Importance of Connection

Look around you. The trappings of modernity dominate your life—computer-phones, electric cars, drones, connection, and so on. But the operating system for your physical and emotional being dates to the earliest proto-humans.

Our progenitors rose to the top of the food chain primarily because they learned how to pool and share social resources. They found physical safety and emotional security in social connections. “The dominant ecology for the human being is other human beings,” says Dr. James Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia.

Hardwired for Connection

We are, at our neurological core, hardwired to join tribes, cooperate, and seek reward in team accomplishments. Clinically validated research in the neurosciences has demonstrated this basic, neurologically hard-wired human need. Whether we are hunting and gathering, or playing in an orchestra, our brain is nourished by our value and connection to others.

Now consider the case of orphaned children in Britain following World War II. Cared for in what were then called foundling homes, the children were provided safe, clean, warm conditions, and nutritious food.

Yet they were dying.

Doctors were flummoxed. The facilities catered to the children’s every physical need. Then they discovered that the children were exhibiting the same symptoms as many British soldiers suffering from what was then called shell shock—what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

While the children’s physical well-being was well cared for, they were emotionally isolated as the sole family survivor in truly traumatic times. They had lost all of their safe and secure connections, and the institutions where they lived were a poor proxy for a loving family.

The children were literally dying of loneliness, right there among dozens of other children.

The Importance of Trusted Social Connections

It turns out that simply being in the midst other humans isn’t enough. Our brains crave deep social connections in which we are valued members of a group. Subsequent research has demonstrated that we can endure much greater hardship in the presence of secure connections than when alone. The mythology of the solitary American cowboy taming the western frontier is antithetical to the way real humans are wired to perform at their best.

Few of us hunt in packs these days, but we do have a surrogate for the ancient tribe: the workplace. Even there, we are biologically predisposed to seek trusted connections and to work in a team. The Gallup Organization has found that people who report they have a trusted colleague at work are up to seven times more engaged in their job.

Action Steps:
  • Create a workplace that is predictable, positive, and that validates and recognizes employees. Model relationship building, mutual respect, support, and caring – and recognize others when you see them demonstrate the same.
  • Train your managers to pay attention for opportunities to encourage, thank, and show an interest in team members.
  • Foster an environment in which all members are rewarded when the team succeeds.

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