The Surprising Reason We Fail to Connect as Leaders

Craig Janssen
5 min readApr 8, 2019
Image: Rock N Roll Monkey via Unsplash

How connected are you as a leader?

Are you confident your followers are supporting you, or does a niggling feeling in your stomach remind you the connection may not be solid as you hope?

Have you ever been blindsided when a connection you thought was strong turned out not to be?

For leaders, the relationship with the people we lead isn’t always straightforward. After all, sometimes leaders have to make unpopular calls. Or share hard truths. There’s no litmus test from the hardware store to reveal if you have supportive followers.

We already know we can’t get by on a title.

There was a time when a title was enough to ensure you had followers. But the command and control structures that shaped the industrial workplace have failed in a digital culture.

Sure, the authoritative top-down approach worked when people were performing singular tasks, but for complex job functions, we need followers (and leaders) who can think — not robots who wait to respond to a hierarchy.

Besides, something in us resists.

We’ve all felt the pull of the “do not step on the grass” sign. There’s an innate distrust of authority.

Good leaders know that the only way people will follow you is if they want to.

The old stereotype of a boss who belittles and berates those who work under him is a dead model. (And if there are any left who still fit the stereotype, I’m pretty sure they aren’t self-aware enough to be reading this, so I don’t need to address that problem.)

Leaders have to be able to connect beyond hierarchy in order for their teams to be self-motivated and organized enough to meet a mission. The thing is that we don’t have great templates to accomplish this outside of the old command and control structures.

The place our fear impedes connection.

Much has been written about Google’s discovery that psychological safety is one of the key components to high-performing teams. While it struck many as surprising, it shouldn’t have. We already know personally that we are more likely to be creative in scenarios where we feel safe and inhibited when we don’t.

As much as we’d like to think we are sophisticated, there’s still a whole lot of programming from when we walked into the middle school cafeteria and had to find an open seat in a sea of judgmental faces.

We all fear rejection.

This isn’t just psychological. This is biological.

According to research by the University of Michigan, our bodies respond to rejection the same way they do to physical injury. The stress isn’t something we can just “get over.” It is hard-wired into us.

To our nervous system, social threats are as dire as physical ones.

So as leaders, we get up each morning and put on our emotional armor, stepping into the workplace to get things done hoping our team has our back.

The thing is, this protection doesn’t serve us.

Our personal armor may be protection, but it’s also a barrier. Which can leave us disconnected from the people we need to connect with the most.

This makes us miss the point that could actually help us:

We aren’t the only ones walking around with armor on.

That armor you wear each day? Imagine every person in your organization, company, or small team, similarly walled up. They have defense mechanisms in place to protect them from rejection just like you do.

As a leader, you are the only one who can make it safe to remove it.

And the process is fairly simple — though it takes an immense amount of courage to pull it off.

Everyone wants to be liked. (This isn’t about being likeable. That’s a side issue.)

This is about the fundamental human need to know we are accepted and liked by others.

Everyone is scared that they aren’t likeable, so they are cautious going into a relationship until someone else throws it out there first.

You — as a leader — have the power to do that.

A smile — when genuine — is a powerful tool. Acknowledging people. Celebrating what they bring to the team. Active listening.

Before you dismiss this as some Hallmark-card idea that has little impact in the real world, consider the last team you were part of that was truly effective. The group you couldn’t wait to meet with.

Chances are, they were your friends. And you knew without doubt they liked you back.

You can’t fake this.

I was once at a Global Design Alliance meeting with leaders of some of the top architectural, engineering, and construction firms. While I knew the leaders in this room well, there was always a bit of a warm up each time we got together — especially when there were new people in the group.

Then, Bob walked in.

Bob was a candidate for new membership in the GDA. I’ll always remember how the atmosphere of the room shifted, when he walked up to speak and said, “I just like you guys.” Suddenly, everyone was on Bob’s side. He was authentic. The vote for his membership was unanimous.

We’ve all experienced salespeople who use likeability as manipulation. It creates distance. Our meter for detecting inauthenticity is high. We instinctively know we need to protect ourselves when we suspect friendliness is being used as a tool.

Liking people isn’t something you can fake — which means to be authentic it has to start with our thought processes.

How we think about people influences how we feel about them.

Any thought of us vs. them, management vs. the workforce, or C-suite vs. management is death to connection.

And sadly, I’ve seen people who use this type of rivalry-building to try to cement bonding within their own tier. This strategy infects teams making them far less effective — and less loyal.

You don’t have to fail at connection. You can create it.

Want to be more connected as a leader? Let people know they are liked. (And actually like them.)

Practicing this radical likeability develops followers that support you. It develops a culture of people who have each other’s backs. The blindsides vanish.

And then when you have to make unpopular calls or share hard truths you’ll find you have a whole tribe to help you navigate them.

The connection will be real.



Craig Janssen

I help leaders navigate engagement and technology shifts. I lead the team at Idibri. More at