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Timothy R. Clark: Highly engaged employees look for connections, meaningful return on connections

Published: Monday, May 28 2012 6:14 a.m. MDT

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Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the newly released book, “The Employee Engagement Mindset,” published by McGraw-Hill.

On a spring day in 1978, 15-year-old Britt Berrett was in his backyard. As he had done many times before, he struck a match and leaned down to light the barbecue. That’s the last thing he remembers. A ball of fire engulfed Britt, leaving him severely burned over much of his face, neck, shoulders and arms. His family rushed him to the burn unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Wash. The prognosis wasn’t good: He would be badly scarred for life.

In the hospital, a team of highly skilled doctors and nurses attended to Britt. He began to heal, but it was a slow, painful process. During those first days in the hospital, Britt developed a special connection with the members of the clinical staff who was caring for him. He could tell the staff had taken a special interest in him. He was deeply touched by the personal and genuine concern they showed.

In fact, it puzzled him. He decided he wanted to do what they did. After two weeks in the hospital, when the pain had finally become bearable, Britt started walking the halls of the hospital burn unit, popping into the patient rooms and introducing himself to other burn victims. After a few days, he had befriended every patient in the unit. He wanted to comfort and encourage the other patients and their families. As he connected with them, Britt found that he was healing faster himself.

After many weeks of excruciating pain and endless therapy, Britt returned home fully healed. The miracle of it all was that he took with him one small scar on his left arm — a tiny reminder of the terrible accident. More important, through his experience, Britt discovered the power of connecting with other people. Connecting with the patients brought him a sense of satisfaction, purpose and fulfillment he had never experienced before. Through it he gained a deep and powerful sense of engagement, something that was new to him.

But the story doesn’t end there. Britt’s hospital stay became a turning point in his life. Before the accident, his family had just moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and the experience of being uprooted as a teenager was tough on him. Britt felt very much alone at school. When he returned to school after the accident, however, he decided to reach out to the other kids the way he had learned to reach out to the patients. He shifted his focus outward and began connecting with nearly everyone. It soon became a habit. He made it a point to reach out to students who were having a hard time fitting in, those he could tell needed a friend.

The next spring, Britt was voted class president. The following year he became the student body president of Centralia High School. Britt has moved on to pursue an education and career. Perhaps not surprisingly, Britt is back walking the halls of a hospital, visiting and connecting with patients and clinical staff. He has served as the CEO of three major hospitals in the United States and now runs the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas.

What makes Britt’s story important is that his life could have been different. He didn’t have to reach out. Learning to connect and having the motivation to do it was his personal choice. To his credit, he learned at 15 years of age what many adults never learn — that connecting is a fundamental driver of engagement. When we connect with each other — and not merely transact — the impact is felt in both directions.

Connecting is the process of exchanging emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual value. In our digital, globalizing world, we talk a lot about connectivity. But that’s not what we mean. We’re talking about something much deeper, richer and more meaningful. We’re talking about a type of connecting that is unique to our species. It can’t be replaced by technology. It’s something the virtual world can support but never duplicate. The multisensory experience of connecting with other human beings, your work and your surroundings is what makes you singularly human. We strive for it. We thrive on it. When we connect meaningfully, it fuels our engagement. When we don’t, we are left hollow, empty and unfulfilled.

Getting a return on connection

There’s nothing new about connecting. It’s a basic human need. We are social creatures who have an innate need to connect. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, relationship and belonging needs are right next to safety and survival needs. Forming strong bonds and attachments is essential for a healthy, balanced life. It’s true for children, and it is no less true for adults.

Here’s the challenge: Most people are constantly connected, even tethered, to some digital device. The irony is that we can be constantly connected and yet feel disengaged and isolated at the same time. Many people are confused about how to connect. Society is filled with blanket directives to connect in this way or that. You need this device. You should join this social network. You must have so many contacts. You need to meet so-and-so. You must participate in these activities. You ought to join this organization, take this class, download this smartphone app or take this survey. It’s simply over the top. How do you make sense of this tangle of advice?

Have you ever traded a half hour of your time to watch an infomercial at 2 a.m.? Was it really worth it? Here’s the principle: Highly engaged employees focus on one thing: They look for meaningful return on connection. If connecting is about an exchange of value, highly engaged employees are always asking the question, “Am I getting a high return on connection for my investment?” No one can answer that for you, but you can certainly answer that question for yourself. If you’ve just spent the last two hours at a networking event and you did nothing but talk about truck pulls and professional wrestling, your return on connection was near zero on a 10-point scale. Move on.

It’s a simple metric, but it works. Judge everything you do on the basis of meaningful return on connection. We even suggest that you assign a return on connection (ROC) score to the things that you do and the way you spend your time. If your investment of time yields a low ROC — say, something in the 1 to 5 category — cut it loose. At the very least, make some changes to raise your ROC. Highly engaged employees don’t necessarily connect more. They connect more effectively. They are discriminating with their time and invest only in high ROC activities.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His new book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been published by McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net.

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