The Human Need for Connection

“Connect With People Frequently” is the first of Vestalia’s five Leadership Essentials.  Taking the time to sustain a relationship with your team members where you both feel acknowledged, supported, encouraged, and celebrated as individuals doesn’t just satisfy organizational goals, it fulfills basic and intense human needs built into our very DNA.

In the following article, Jeff Wynn, Vestalia’s former Associate Director of People Services (and U of M-Duluth grad with a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Psychology) digs into the history and science of connection to help us understand it from a bigger picture point of view.

The Human Need for Connection

by Jeff Wynn, 7/17/19

We all Need

Humans have some very basic needs for survival (food, water, rest, etc.), but when it comes to actually thriving, there are some very different needs that must be addressed, one of which being connection. I’m talking about social connection; which is connection with other human beings. Recent research has shown social connection to be as important as food or shelter to our survival and ability to thrive. This is why we encourage you to connect frequently with the people you work with. Build those relationships, connections, and trust. It’s more important to the team’s survival than you might think.

The need for connection begins in childhood when it is extremely important for us to connect to some sort of caregiver that we can trust to take care of us when we are so vulnerable to harm. These bonds, between infant and caregiver, are formed quickly, but can also be broken quickly. If the caregiver doesn’t respond to the needs of the infant and the infant suffers, that trust and connection is broken, and the infant will respond differently to that person moving forward. If these bonds are threatened or severed, it can lead to long-term health and educational problems as well as problems forming relationships in adulthood. As you can see, we are wired for connection from birth. It is quite literally a matter of life and death.

As we move through childhood and into adulthood, our need for connection remains very strong. In fact, when a connection with another person is broken or damaged, the pain felt is identical to physical pain from a bodily injury. Equally, when a connection with another is strengthened or enhanced in some way, i.e. they pay you a compliment or show you increased trust, the happiness felt is comparable to physical pleasure. Brain activity is shown in the same parts of the brain by fMRI scans. In the scan, you can see the areas of the brain currently being used by the way they light up. When someone feels physical pain or has a loss of connection, the same area of the brain lights up. It’s the same with pleasure pathways and strengthening connections. Cool, right?

In 1943, Dr. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist focused on motivation, created what is now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This pyramid shows Maslow’s theory of human need and motivation. The pyramid begins with the most basic of human needs, (food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep, etc.) and moves up with needs of varying degrees. The third level on the pyramid, right after safety and security, is the need for love and belonging. This level includes the needs for friendship, intimacy, family and a sense of connection. Being right in the middle of the pyramid, you can see how important this need seemed.

Even in 1943, psychologists were seeing the need for personal connection to human thriving, but based on recent theories and research, you could expect to see that level move down the pyramid and maybe be included in the very base. Maslow wanted to show how these needs would be structured if we were talking about basic human survival through human thriving, checking each box along the way. What we are seeing today is more of a circular theory for needs where each affects the others in multiple ways. The diagram below is what Maslow theorized our needs to look like in 1943.

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs

There are some physiological benefits to having strong connections as well. People with stronger connections to others tend to live longer, be mentally and physically healthier in life, and even heal from disease or injury faster. Moreover, people with stronger interpersonal connections have been shown to have lower rates of anxiety and depression, all the while having higher self-esteem. These relationships can be with coworkers, friends or family. It doesn’t seem to matter where they come from; what matters is the strength of the connection.

You may be wondering, “What does this have to do with me?” That is a great question! Last week, Becky discussed our first Leadership Essential with you, connect with people frequently. This is an important part of building psychological safety and an overall safe working environment for your teams. Creating these connections will aide you in making people feel safe enough to try things and fail. They will also allow people to feel comfortable with you in giving and receiving feedback. Connecting with people frequently is the best way to gain and maintain a healthy and trusting relationship. If you can accomplish these things, you’re team will be happier and more engaged and you could see a boost in productivity as well. It’s a win-win!

As human beings, we are naturally social creatures in need of connection with other humans. Taking the time to build new connections or strengthen existing ones will only improve your personal and professional life. You will find your work to be more fulfilling and satisfying if you’re working with people you have a connection with. Imagine how your team would feel if everyone was connected to one another in some meaningful way.

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