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Connection Culture: Q&A With Michael Lee Stallard

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Creating a thriving organization where employees feel valued, the environment is energized, and high productivity and innovation are the norm requires a new kind of leader who fosters a culture of connection within the organization. Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, Second Edition (ATD Press, September 2020), offers some advice on how leaders can develop habits of attitude, language, and behavior that foster a connection culture in their organizations.

In this Q&A, author Michael Lee Stallard shares some insights from the book.

1. Why did you write this book?

While working in technology and on Wall Street early in my career, I served on teams and in organizations that energized me and in others that drained me and held me back. Too often I observed how a merger might look great on paper but fails to meet its goals because culture clashes sabotaged performance. Many times, I experienced the culture of a team change when a new person came in and their way of treating people negatively affected the team dynamics.

I became curious about leadership style and organizational culture and wanted to know what I should I be doing as a leader to foster an engaging, collaborative, and innovative environment. I began a personal journey to understand what is needed at work for people to thrive and give their best efforts—human connection. I ended up leaving Wall Street to focus on this area, exploring numerous fields of study from organizational behavior and history to psychology and more. I founded a leadership training firm to share what my colleagues and I were discovering about the power of human connection. Connection Culture captures these insights and provides a simple, memorable, and actionable framework that helps leaders develop work cultures where people thrive, individually and collectively. This framework can also be applied to any group, including a family, a sports team, and nonprofit organizations.

2. How is connection powerful?

Connection is not just a nice thing to have in your personal and professional life. Research supports that it is necessary; we are hardwired to connect. Without sufficient connection, we will be dysfunctional. And more than that, connection is powerful.

The power comes from how feeling connected makes individuals more productive, more creative, more energetic, and more effective. In fact, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman describes human connection as a superpower. The power of connection benefits the organization through improved employee engagement, strategic alignment, quality of decisions, innovation, agility, and adaptability. Combined, these boost performance and competitive advantage.

3. Why did you decide to do a second edition so soon?

There have been breakthroughs in research in the last five years that underscore the importance of connection and the perils of disconnection in our personal lives, work lives, and society. We want people to be equipped with that knowledge that bolsters the case for connection, especially if they are trying to affect a positive culture shift in their group.

Take the issue of loneliness. Declining social connection grabbed national attention in 2017 when Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, presented data from two research studies that found that individuals with stronger social connections were associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death, whereas individuals who were lonely or socially isolated (that is, not around people) were associated with a risk of premature death equal to or greater than the risk of premature death from widely known risk factors including obesity and smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. A lack of sufficient connection affects longevity. She declared that the United States and several nations around the world are facing an epidemic of loneliness. Cigna released study results in early 2020 that three in five American adults self-report as lonely, aligning with Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s assertion that loneliness is a pervasive issue. Other research shows that greater loneliness in the workplace results in poorer task, team role, and relational performance.

In addition to updating and adding new research, we’ve expanded the book with more examples and practical tips for building cultures of connection. We welcomed the opportunity to broaden the diversity of inspiring leaders from business, government, healthcare, higher education, sports, media and entertainment, and the social sectors, drawing on leadership lessons from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to a behind-the-scenes look at Lin-Manuel Miranda and the team that developed the successful award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton.

4. Is there a correlation between stress and connection?

We know that greater social connection makes us more resilient to cope with stress. We also know that a connection deficit negatively affects our own health and well-being, the health of organizations, and the health of society. I have observed how the increasing pace and stress of life threaten to squeeze out time for supportive, life-giving relationships, and endeavors. And now we have a convergence of factors—high stress, the current loneliness epidemic, and increased social isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic—that make boosting connection an even more urgent matter.

There are reasons to believe these conditions may last for some time and, unfortunately, may get worse before they improve. But I remain optimistic that we can combat and overcome many of them. By showing people the need to be in cultures of connection and how they can cultivate connection in their circles of influence or leadership, this book will help them cope well with stress, protect their emotional and physical health, and set them up to give their best performances in their work so that they make it through this difficult season and are well-positioned to thrive for a sustained period of time.

5. Who should read Connection Culture?

While Connection Culture was written with the busy leader in mind, the principles and the Vision + Value + Voice framework apply to everyone. Whether you are in the C-suite or on the frontlines, whether you have some responsibility for training leaders, whether you serve on the board of a local nonprofit or volunteer on a PTA committee at your child’s school, whether you are just starting your career or you’re retired, whether you are a parent at home with young children or teens, the principles are applicable to your daily life.


For example, let’s say you work in a positive, stimulating work environment and want to understand how to be a part of ensuring that culture takes root and carries on. You may be a leader who wants to become more effective. Or you may be in a work or non-work environment that is relationally toxic in subtle or obvious ways. Is it a culture of control or a culture of indifference? The connection culture framework we present will help you assess your current situation and determine if there is hope for change through putting practices that boost connection into place.

6. What has surprised you the most in your research about connection?

As I dug into the research across numerous fields of study, I was fascinated to learn what goes on in our bodies when we feel connected or disconnected, some of which we may not even be aware of.

For example, the science shows that our brain and other body systems are designed to operate at a state of balance, and they need to get the right amounts of hormones, blood, glucose, and oxygen to perform at their best. When we feel disconnected, unsupported, left out, or lonely, our bodies alter the levels of hormones and reallocate blood, glucose, and oxygen to the “fight or flight” systems, such as the heart, lungs, and thighs in preparation for needing to respond quickly. The body’s natural stress response is good if we are facing a short-term threat such as an attack. However, working in cultures of control or indifference can cause our bodies to become stuck in stress response, which makes us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and addiction.

For the second edition, I added a section on dopaminergic versus serotoninergic personalities. While it is a good and useful thing to have an internal spark to pursue a goal and persevere on your quest to attain it, too much of the neurotransmitter dopamine is a cause for concern. The dopamine circuits in the brain are stimulated by the possibility of what is shiny and new, never mind how well things may be going in the present. In organizations, leaders who have dopaminergic personalities are never satisfied. They continuously push people to achieve unrealistic goals in pursuit of boosting their own personal wealth, power, or status. This obsessive pursuit can overwhelm people working for them and create high levels of anxiety, incivility, stress, declining employee engagement, and rising burnout (and may push them toward an addiction of their own as they try to cope). Failing to feed the dopamine habit triggers pangs of withdrawal. An individual who is overly reliant on dopamine may be headed for a crash. The best leaders don’t drink from the dopamine fire hydrant. In addition to drawing on normal levels of dopamine, they benefit from other sources of positive emotion in the brain such as serotonin that make them more stable and more effective leaders who are in touch with the people they lead.

An aha moment for many people is the discussion of the seven universal human needs to thrive at work that my colleagues and I have identified. The extent to which they are being met determines whether we feel connected to our supervisor, our colleagues, and to the work we are doing. If you are in an unhealthy culture, the book will help you narrow in on why certain attitudes, words, or actions are undermining connection in the culture and impacting you the way they do.

7. What are the dangers of a culture where connection seems elusive?

Working in an environment of disconnection is detrimental to your emotional health and your physical health. It may even slow down or derail your career trajectory. When employees are unable to work up to their potential, their organizations may peg them as mediocre or poor performers and thus limit their opportunities for advancement. Potential future employers also may not recognize that they are capable of much more.

There is also a real danger of managerial failure and survival—something we see far too often, in fact. A deficiency of connection negatively affects individual employee engagement and execution. Employees who feel controlled, marginalized, or treated like a means to an end won’t be able to do their best work and may not want to.

Absent connection, knowledge traps build up, just like cholesterol builds up in an unhealthy cardiovascular system and leads to a heart attack. Knowledge traps hinder the free flow of information or know-how, such as a critical piece of data, an insight into a competitor, or feedback from a customer. Without it getting into the mix, a suboptimal decision might be made. Knowledge traps include rivalries, departmental silos, decision-makers who don't seek and consider the opinions and ideas of others, and the human tendency of out of sight, out of mind, which is especially problematic for teams that work remotely.

Connection stimulates knowledge flow that is essential to optimal decision-making and maintaining a robust internal marketplace of ideas that fuel innovation. A connection culture cultivates an openness that facilitates connecting ideas and knowledge to spark innovation. It also provides relational support so that people feel safe to take the risks required to innovate.

8. Does culture change have to start at the top?

An ideal situation would be for a culture change to start from the top of the organization. But if you are not a leader at the top of your organization and those who are more senior are not intentional about creating a connection culture, you can still have a positive and powerful impact on creating connection in your environment.

Organizations comprise many subcultures. For example, one department has a great energy and people work really well together while down the hall there is a group that barely tolerates each other. Although the macro-culture of your organization will influence your local subculture, it does not determine it. The primary determinants of connection for you are the predominant attitudes, uses of language, and behaviors of those in your local subculture. For that reason, you can have an influence on your local subculture, whether you are the leader, a supervisor, or informally lead others through your influence.


In the work my colleagues and I do, we frequently see people change their local subculture for the better. It’s easy to create a connection subculture on a team or in a business unit if you have a good leader who cares about people as well as results. Creating and sustaining a connection culture across an entire organization, however, is more challenging because it means converting any subcultures of control and indifference into connection subcultures. In Connection Culture, we lay out the steps to take to operationalize a connection culture, starting with developing a connection mindset through training, building a connection skillset, assessing the culture, providing coaching and mentoring, and celebrating connection practices and the culture carriers in your organization.

About the Authors

Michael Lee Stallard is a globally recognized thought leader on how leaders create and maintain cultures of connection that help teams and organizations thrive for a sustained period. A keynote speaker, leadership trainer, and executive coach, he is co-founder and president of leadership training and consulting firms E Pluribus Partners and Connection Culture Group. Michael’s clients have included Costco, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, NASA, Qualcomm, Turner Construction, US Air Force, and Yale-New Haven Health. Texas Christian University founded the TCU Center for Connection Culture based on Michael’s work. Michael is the primary author of Connection Culture and Fired Up or Burned Out.

Earlier in his career, Michael was chief marketing officer for private wealth management businesses at Morgan Stanley and Charles Schwab. He received a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Illinois State University, a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas, Permian Basin, and a JD from DePaul University Law School. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1991. Michael is married and has two daughters.

Todd W. Hall is co-founder and chief scientist of Connection Culture Group, a professor of psychology at Biola University, and a faculty affiliate in the Harvard Human Flourishing Program. He has more than 25 years of experience helping individuals and teams thrive. Todd’s consulting work focuses on helping leaders build a connection culture. His writing and work have been featured by,, the Association for Talent Development, and

Todd has consulted with start-ups, government agencies, nonprofits, for-profit organizations, and universities, including the National Institute for Mental Health, Northwestern Medicine, McDonald’s, and The New York City Leadership Center. He is a licensed psychologist in California and holds a PhD in clinical psychology from Biola University and a doctoral specialization in measurement and psychometrics from UCLA. Prior to teaching and consulting, Todd served on active duty in the US Army as a clinical psychologist. Todd is married and has two sons.

Katharine (Katie) P. Stallard is a partner at E Pluribus Partners and Connection Culture Group. She is a gifted connector, speaker, and teacher with diverse experience in marketing, administration, business, and nonprofit organizations. Audiences and seminar participants enjoy her sense of humor and practical advice. She has co-authored articles appearing in Leader to Leader and HR Magazine. Katie has worked in marketing for Tyndale House Publishers, a leading global Christian book publisher; for a Forbes 400 family helping to manage their diverse holdings; and in communications for Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. She also served on boards of education and social sector organizations. Katie has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Illinois. She is married to Michael, and they have two daughters.

Jason Pankau is a co-founder and partner at E Pluribus Partners. He speaks, teaches, coaches, and consults for a wide variety of the firm’s clients. He wrote Beyond Self Help, contributed to Fired Up or Burned Out and What Managers Say, What Employees Hear, and has written articles for Leader to Leader and Leadership Excellence. Jason is the founding pastor of Chicago Hope Church and president of Life Spring Network, a Christian organization that trains and coaches pastors and church leaders.

Jason has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University in business economics and organizational behavior/management. He has a masters of divinity from Southern Theological Seminary and has completed the required coursework for a doctorate in leadership at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is married and has two daughters and two sons.

About ATD and ATD Press

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the world’s largest association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. ATD’s members come from more than 120 countries and work in public and private organizations in every industry sector. ATD Press publications are written by industry thought leaders and offer anyone who works with adult learners the best practices, academic theory, and guidance necessary to move the profession forward. For more information, visit

Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, Second Edition
ISBN: 9781950496525 | 256 Pages | Paperback

To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.

To schedule an interview with Michael Lee Stallard please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at [email protected] or 703.683.8178.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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