There’s been a lot of talk in the social sector lately about avoiding burnout. When people are working on the frontlines of social change—staying up late to write a grant proposal, doing the night shift in a homeless shelter, giving their all to kids in an after-school program—it can be easy to become so passionate about a cause that you eventually run yourself into the ground.
The usual suggestions to counter burnout focus on self-care. People recommend that you make the time to eat right, exercise, go on outings with friends and family, and set clear work hours. These are all useful prescriptions, but let’s be honest: people who choose to work in the social sector likely won’t get recharged solely by focusing on personal happiness. They also want to build lives of meaning that integrate opportunities for staying energized with a purpose beyond themselves.
In our newest Master Class, Emily Esfahani Smith the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters offers practical micro-strategies to build the 4 Pillars of Meaning—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence—into your own daily life. One of her most useful observations is that building a meaningful life doesn’t have to start with grand gestures to solve global hunger or tackle nuclear disarmament. Instead, you can begin with the exchanges you have every day. These could include the interactions you have with the cashier at your neighborhood bodega or the people you walk by as you take your kids to school.
Building upon the research of Jane Dutton, a Professor of Business Administration and Psychology at the University of Michigan, Emily recommends that we look up from our smartphones and start finding the opportunities to build more high-quality connections with the people around us. After years researching the small exchanges that occur between people, Dutton has found that high-quality connections are characterized by three basic things:
- Positive energy: These exchanges “light you up” even if they’re brief or with someone you’ve never met. You have an experience of enhanced energy or a sense of vitality or zest afterwards. You walk away with a sense of aliveness.
- Positive regard: You feel authentically known by the other person—even if it is just in a small way. You might experience the sense that ‘They see me’ and ‘I see them.’ You’re not just viewing the cashier or the commuter or the janitor in front of you as a nameless face, but instead as a real person.
- Mutuality: There is equal engagement in the moment, which is born out of mutual vulnerability and responsiveness. Both people experience full participation.
Intuitively, we recognize that the more we can have these energizing exchanges, the better off we’ll be. But Dutton’s research has found that these interactions don’t just have feel-good appeal, they can also fundamentally shape everything from the business outcomes of organizations to the physiological reactions of our bodies. Research has shown that if we have more of these types of exchanges at work, our cardiovascular, neuroendrocine, and immune systems experience a boost. And if workplaces foster these types of connections, they build cultures of generativity and openness that can lead them to be more innovative.
Workplaces that foster high-quality connection build more generative and open cultures that can lead to more innovation.
Dutton has described high-quality connections as “instant vitamins” because the benefits from these short exchanges can be so potent. If you’re an introvert or have a busy life, you might be feeling like you don’t have the extra energy to invest. But the point of high-quality connections is to make the most of the interactions we’re already having—by making them more human and more energizing on both sides. This doesn’t have to take a lot of extra work; it just requires the intentionality to realize when these opportunities present themselves.
3 ways to think about building high-quality connections:
- Build a connections mindset: Think through all those moments in your day when you’re staring at your phone or experiencing a flattened state of reality because you’re feeling tired or swamped. How could you reframe the boring or tiring routines like your commute or errands into opportunities for connection? They could happen with a bank teller or the person who swipes your card at the gym. Once you start to look for them, you’ll begin to see more and more.
- Make the first move: Be the person who starts the connection. We might think of our fellow commuters or the people who share our co-working space as stony-faced or busy, but if you reach out with a warm gesture, they’ll likely reciprocate. Look for the good in another person. As Jane Dutton says, “Even if we feel like we don’t have a lot of power, each of us has the power of potential connection. We can always make the first move in a way that invites a genuine energizing connection for another person.”
- Set up the patterns or routines for high-quality connections: If we start to get to know the people around us, we can begin to look forward to the exchanges we’ll have with them each day. This will help us feel motivated to get out of the bed in the morning and feel like we belong to a bigger community. In her book, Emily Esfahani Smith describes a friend who started to have a short conversation each day with the man who sold him a newspaper. They just spent a minute or two talking, but eventually they started to learn more about each other’s families and the exchanges became more natural. Recurring positive interactions with people leads to a more permanent sense of security and community.
Help people feel energized and alive to the possibilities within themselves and, in turn, you will too.
What could this all add up to? Arguably, one reason that Acumen exists in the world is because our founder Jacqueline Novogratz is such a master of these high-quality connections. Whether she is sitting on the floor of a house in rural Pakistan or talking with high-powered investors on Wall Street, almost everyone who encounters Jacqueline comes away feeling heard. Even if the interaction is brief, people consistently say that she makes them feel more energized and more alive to the possibilities within themselves and, in turn, the world.
So take a moment and consider: what could you start if you opened yourself to more high-quality connections? How could you make others feel more open, competent and alive? Who is one person that you could start connecting with today?