Human Connection: How genuine connections can help drive a culture of psychological safety

I have a business partner, Jason Smith, who I have been working alongside with for 13 years. I trust him implicitly like a brother. I like him. We regularly talk about our personal lives including our kids, our wives, our health. I have no doubt that this real, genuine and human connection goes a long way to helping me feel totally safe to speak up and tell him anything. Nothing is out of bounds. He feels the same way about me. He is able to give me positive and negative feedback about anything, anytime…and he does!  I also have no doubt that this aspect of our relationship is a key reason why we have successfully grown a global consulting business over the last 13 years, during periods when we’ve had a global financial crisis and a global pandemic.

Human Connection is all about knowing your team members in real and personal ways beyond just a task-oriented level. How does this fit with psychological safety? Psychological safety is where team members feel safe to speak up. We have found through our research and our collective years of experience working in this area, that when team members are able to get to know each other in real and personal ways beyond task-focussed interactions, they feel more connected to each other and safer to speak up.

When people enjoy interacting with each other and have more genuine personal connections they develop deeper levels of trust.  Stephen M.R. Covey has written a wonderful book called The Speed of Trust.  He argues that trust makes existing relationships more productive, builds respect and fosters innovation and collaboration. Trust helps you achieve outcomes more efficiently. If you trust someone, you don’t need to take time to second guess them and ask lots of questions because once you’ve agreed on what you want to do, you just let them get on with it and do it. Covey also shared a story where a $23 billion business transaction between Warren Buffet and Walmart took place in the span of one meeting and a handshake. This was because they trusted each other. This trust had taken years to build but it enabled a quick and yet crucial decision to be made.

Brene Brown, author of Braving the Wilderness spoke about the importance of having a sense of belonging. She argues that leaders need to create more intimacy with their employees.  True belonging is a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. Interestingly the research is clear about the need for face-to-face connections.  Whilst people were connected virtually throughout the global pandemic, many people still experienced a strong sense of loneliness and isolation. Social media and virtual meetings can begin to develop relationships but for deeper, real connections, people need to meet in real space in real time. If we can do this, leaders can create a culture where people feel safe to speak up and in Brene’s words, they will “speak truth to bullshit while maintaining civility”.

Part of being authentic and building human connections is about showing that you care about others. This isn’t possible if you are only talking about work or task-related topics. It also is not possible without what Kristin Neff calls ‘self-compassion’. Her definition of self-compassion is being kind and understanding when you are confronted with personal failings. It is also about recognising that we are all human beings and therefore we are fallible. It is normal and human to succeed and to fail. If we truly understand this, we can be kinder to ourselves. This in turn has many benefits for us and others. We are better at regulating our own emotions and we are happier and more patient. This allows us to be less judgmental about ourselves and others. It increases the chances that we will notice how our actions affect others. This enables us to slow down, be curious, non-judgemental and to demonstrate that we truly care about others. This is the core of human connections.

At Steople we are currently working with an organisation where we have measured the level of psychological safety across many teams within a division.  It is fascinating to observe that, whilst 65% of the division ‘enjoy interacting with each other’, only 8% of employees across all teams actually ‘build genuine connections with each other’ and only 35% actually ‘engage in social interactions during work’ and/or ‘talk about shared interests’. This was in an organisation where ‘human connections’ was their top factor driving up psychological safety. Our advice to them has been that they need to focus on building on the fact that people actually like and enjoy interacting with each other, by finding simple and regular ways to build genuine connections through engaging in more social interactions where they can talk about shared interests outside of work. This will help to enhance human connections and psychological safety.

The global pandemic has changed the way many leaders see their roles. Most leaders seem to recognise that you can’t and shouldn’t separate out the home and work life. We need to learn to bring our whole self to work. During COVID we were literally able to see into the homes of our team members and some of this was refreshingly human. Sadly, some leaders are still stuck in the past and want to ‘manage’ people and get things done but don’t believe in taking the time to really get to know people. Those leaders will struggle to succeed in the future. The leaders of the future will be able to build authentic human connections with others and this will help them deliver long-term business success rather than short-term performance returns.

If you want to find out more about how to measure the level of human connections and psychological safety in your teams in order to build a targeted plan to improve it, contact Steople to set up a time to talk.



Brene Brown – Braving the Wilderness

Kristin Neff – Self-Compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself

Stephen M.R. Covey – The Speed of Trust