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Leading with Connectional Intelligence in a Hybrid World

Instead of adapting to a new normal, Erica Dhawan inspires organizations to create a “better normal” in a hybrid world.

In the last three years, we’ve seen more disruption at work — and yet more innovation — than in perhaps 20 years. When forced to work remotely, leaders had to rethink the signals of good culture, empowerment, and collaboration. Digital tools that got little traction for years became business requirements for productivity, innovation, and social connection. Teams that had not taken the time to focus on alignment or inclusion no longer had face-to-face body language to get back on the same page.

As many of us continue to adapt to hybrid work, this is a moment to not just go back to the office or adapt to a “hybrid normal,” but to reimagine a new and better normal. How will we use the office and hybrid work to engage in the things that we missed most and improve collaborative innovation moving forward?

There was one incredible lesson from the pandemic: For years we assumed offices were the key to creating culture, but they actually aren’t.

Throughout the past few years, we found that the rituals of communication and collaboration, from team spirit to watercooler moments to informal social connections, bring us together and build culture. Research well before the pandemic proved that virtual teams can outperform co-located teams when these rituals are in place.

To create a better normal, we must design a workplace where we maximize the collective expertise of everyone, no matter their distance and equip leaders to build 21st century collaboration skills that allow them to maximize team performance through in-person, hybrid, and remote formats.

So, how are teams and organizations able to create game-changing collaborative innovation now? And how will we create a better normal moving forward in both the office and in hybrid and remote formats?

It goes beyond traditional business know-how and foresight to address these new challenges. It takes the mastery of a key leadership skill called connectional intelligence – the new requirement for game-changing teams in the 21st century workplace.

Just as game-changing as emotional intelligence was in the 90s, connectional intelligence is a set of 21st century business practices designed for the modern hybrid, global, multi-generational, and matrixed workplace. Put simply, connectional intelligence is the ability to unlock new and unrealized value by fully harnessing the power of in-person, hybrid, and remote work.

Connectional intelligence teaches us to visibly value others in a hybrid world. Remember how a handshake after a job well done used to go a long way toward making you feel valued? Today, when team members work in different spheres, departments, offices, floors, and countries, a handshake is impossible. Even on video chats, a screen freezing or that weird echo from your colleague makes it hard for attendees to feel valued, requiring us to build new norms for visible appreciation.

Connectional intelligence helps us communicate clearly when timing is off. When someone standing two feet away asks us a question, we respond instantly. We also know when a conversation has come to a natural end. But today, we are no longer obliged to respond to someone immediately (we have stuff to do!) Today, reading carefully is the new listening. Writing clearly is the new empathy. Spend the time to choose the right channel for your message. In some instances, a phone call is worth a thousand emails. At the same time, responding to your employees’ or your clients’ “urgent” texts five hours later may leave them feeling ignored and resentful.

Connectional intelligence encourages us to rethink how we can maximize in-person meeting culture, create rituals to deepen human relationships, and allow everyone to speak up and foster inclusion. Today, many leaders are asking their teams “what did you miss most when you were not in the office?” Connectional intelligence is about ensuring your in-office days prioritize activities such as radical recognition moments, team brainstorm lunches, new hire mentoring, and apprenticeship moments. As we manage leading teams in a hybrid environment, we must have an intentional plan to engage everyone, to erode poor office behaviors, reduce proximity bias, and maximize flexible schedules and social connections. Additionally, we must maximize hybrid meetings by implementing rituals like having a remote host lead hybrid meetings or regularly hosting “hybrid office hours” to stay inclusive when certain teammates are not in the same location.

Forging cultures of connectional intelligence allows us to remain authentic and inclusive even when a screen divides us. But our responsibility now is to harness our lessons to maximize the collective expertise of everyone — no matter the silo, location, or title — to achieve big results.

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