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Dr. Ivan Joseph: Why Social Cohesion is Key to High Performance at Work

Dr. Ivan Joseph: Why Social Cohesion is Key to High Performance at Work

Last week, a young mentee and I were talking about a performance evaluation he had just received. His supervisor gave him a pretty strong review. But like any high performer, all he could focus on was one piece of critical feedback — he needed to work on his soft skills of building relationships.

This really bothered my mentee. “How do you measure soft skills? Those things aren’t really important in the workplace? Do relationships really matter? I have friends outside of work.” It was hard for him to hear my advice.

In the workplace, there are two things I speak about when exploring high performance — task cohesion and social cohesion. Most people focus on task cohesion, i.e., how well they know the technical aspects of their job. It’s the pieces you learned in your training and onboarding — the structured part of the role.

Many people, especially emerging leaders, ignore the social cohesion piece. This is how well they connect with their fellow co-workers. Some dismiss this as busy and/or unproductive work, but it’s actually critical to know the things that make each other tick if you want to build a high-performance culture.

The best leaders and high performers understand that it’s the combination of task and social cohesion that make performance excellent.

“Nobody Does Anything Alone”: Why Social Cohesion Matters

Let me share with you the story of my wife when she got her first job in a sales organization. She was situated with a bunch of senior veterans. She couldn’t believe how lazy they were. They didn’t put the sort of hours she put in, they were always having coffee on Monday morning to gab about their weekend, and they had long lunch breaks with each other. They seemed much more focused on the social interactions of the office than on doing the actual work.

That’s not who my wife wanted to be, so she distanced herself from them. At the end of the year, when it came time for the all-employee recognition, the team was invited to share highlights about their colleagues from the year gone by. As they went around the room, lots of kudos went out — who helped whom close a deal, or who took on a project when another had to step back. She realized there wasn’t a single compliment that came in her direction. At the end of the year, after all of her hard work, high productivity, and exceeding targets, she was on the outside looking in.

Some of you might be like my mentee and be quick to dismiss this story. Who cares if I’m social? Who cares if I get praise from my coworkers?

What’s important to understand is — nobody does anything alone. You need the power of a team to accomplish tasks, even simple ones. If you are an emerging leader, understanding what’s going on in people’s lives helps generate compassion and helps you understand what motivates your teammates.

Believe me when I tell you that one day the ship will be tight. When there are resource shortages, it’s the people who are on the inside that are in the know. When competition gets stiff, it’s the folks who care about one another who get access to the scarce things. When something big is coming down, those around the table get the heads up. It’s the people who have connections that band together to weather the storm. If you’ve been out there on your own island, you will be forgotten.

I’m not saying to stop focusing on your task cohesion or to let go of your high work ethic and commitment to excellence. What I am suggesting is to challenge yourself to make room for both. Can you find a way to create meaningful, authentic connections in the workplace? Recognize that strong relationships will improve your performance as an employee.

How to Build Social Cohesion

Here are three simple ways to build social cohesion:

  1. Show up early for your Zoom meeting and ask an open-ended question: “What did you do this weekend?” “Did you see that sunset last night?” “What did you think of that Maple Leafs’ game?”
  2. As an emerging leader, leave space in your meetings for small talk. Sometimes it’s hard for introverted or quiet people to fill the space, so come prepared with some pre-circulated questions. Literally, send out a message: “Hey folks, at the beginning of the meeting, come prepared to share a challenge you had at work this year or something you’re proud of accomplishing at work.” Sometimes I use this one, “Hey folks, come prepared to share a joke.” It’s amazing how it opens up the conversation and gets the energy of the meeting humming and buzzing.
  1. Get out of your office and pop your head into other peoples’ spaces, even if it’s only for a minute just to say hi. Showing up and being present is really important, especially as we navigate our way back from these virtual spaces. We need to invest back in our relationships. I know it’s easier to stay virtual, but we have to take some face-to-face and reconnect with each other.

Here’s a bonus one: Small spontaneous actions in the workplace can really help foster a connection with a colleague. The other day I had a meeting cancelled. It was an opportunity. I reached out to a colleague to go for an ice cream. It became a walking meeting — unplanned, spontaneous, with no agenda. It was a small gesture of kindness. It created a meaningful connection, and we got some important work done that neither of us had planned. Push yourself when you invite others to stretch and vary your connections.

There is a temptation for us to get busy in our lives, to want to rush towards the deadlines, get straight to the task, and think of “soft skills” as unimportant. I don’t like the term soft skills. It indicates they are secondary or not as crucial to excellence. I would use instead complimentary skills or essential skills.

Building cohesion is essential to building a high performing culture. When you make people feel like they matter and belong, you will engender trust and loyalty in them. They will go beyond the job description and exceed expectations all because you’ve taken the time to build a meaningful, authentic relationship.

I encourage emerging leaders to leave space for and encourage activities that build connections. If you are a young professional, remember that nobody does anything alone — the quickest way to your goals is to invest in each other.

Remember the old African proverb, “If you want to go quick, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

An award-winning coach, educator, and leader, Dr. Ivan Joseph has spent his career leading cultural transformation. He inspires people and teams to achieve more and speaks to self-confidence, performance, and perseverance, drawing from lessons learned from a life in sport. 

Contact us to learn more about Ivan and how he helps organizations foster a high-performing workplace culture.