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Courage to Connect: Why Great Leaders Build Deep Bonds in Difficult Times

Building deeper connections with your team can be uncomfortable, especially when times are tough. But great leaders recognise that in times like these, strengthening bonds is all the more crucial.


In a Nutshell

  • In times of uncertainty, great leaders accept that they can’t figure things out on their own and they need the support of their team.

  • To tap into the creativity and knowledge of their teams, leaders need the courage to connect in a deeper way.

  • The courage to connect builds team relationships and creates an environment of openness and safety that fosters new ideas and innovation.


This is one of the toughest times to be a leader. Leaders have been experiencing more and more complexity and ambiguity. Many of today’s business challenges have no obvious tried-and-tested solutions.

What differentiates good leaders from great ones is how they respond to this uncertainty. And what some of today’s best leaders see is that this search for answers is an opportunity to tap into the creativity and knowledge of the team.

“Expectations for leaders are always changing over time, and businesses today are shifting away from having a leader who knows it all….And a great leader will know how to optimize the skills and talent that their team offers,” Startup Mindset observes.

Leaders don’t have to have everything figured out. Leaders can tap on the team’s group intelligence and potential as they tackle today’s unique problems.

Teams want to be involved in facing challenges

What many leaders don’t realise is that their teams don’t expect them to solve everything on their own. “Teams don't just want to be there to carry out instructions; they want to be able to have some input, some involvement in creating the plans,” Inc says, in 10 Simple Things Great Teams Expect from Their Leaders.

Involving teams in the unique challenges leaders are facing today benefits both leaders and the team.

“Increase employee engagement by involving them in the decision-making process,” Forbes advises, in 4 Simple Ways to Make Your Employees Feel Valued. The command-and-control approach places the burden on one person, the leader. But when leaders take a collaborative approach, the weight is shared by the team. Leaders still take the lead, facilitating and guiding the team.

Leaders need to tap into the group’s potential by having the courage to connect

Leaders who can tap into their team’s group intelligence are leaders who build strong and meaningful connections with their teams. Make it a priority to develop good collaboration and camaraderie. Strong relationships build strong teams.

Many leaders are good at building a surface-level connection, talking about things like the weather, politics, or the state of COVID. They are also beginning to realize that connecting with staff not only builds engagement but contributes to their wellbeing. However, venturing beyond the usual topics can be uncomfortable.

There is a line between casual conversation and deep, meaningful talk that leaders are hesitant to cross. It’s not that they don’t want to build relationships. It pains leaders to think that they may not be able to help employees with what they are going through.

It pains leaders to think that they may not be able to help employees with what they are going through.

In the video Courage to Connect, our consultants Wen-Wei and Calvin identify and address this issue.

“60% of people are reporting higher levels of anxiety today compared to pre-COVID. I think many managers fear to go into this area because a lot of us are such problem-solvers at heart, and it comes from a good place,” Wen-Wei Chiang says.

This is what leaders are thinking and feeling: “If you share a problem with me, I really want to help you. However, how do I solve all these personal issues? I dare not ask the question in case it is something that I cannot handle.”

“60% of people are reporting higher levels of anxiety today compared to pre-COVID. I think many managers fear to go into this area [of deep connection] because a lot of us are such problem-solvers at heart...if you share a problem with me, I really want to help you. However, how do I solve all these personal issues?”

When someone shares a problem, they are not necessarily expecting a solution to the problem, but they appreciate being listened to. In that way, the act of listening is a solution in itself. The person is heard, and the permission to be more open with one another deepens trust.

Having the courage to connect helps leaders find the answers

Connecting on this deep level helps leaders to accept they can’t solve the problems on their own. This prompts leaders to be honest and vulnerable and to ask for help. They can benefit from the other person’s wisdom, or bring the challenge to the group and find the answers together.

The diversity of the team increases group intelligence, according to research from the Tepper School of Business. They found that “The highly collectively intelligent teams’ solutions provided by a group were systematically significantly better than solutions offered by any individual, including the smartest person in the room.”

Having the courage to connect fosters learning and innovation in the team

When leaders give team members the opportunity to contribute and the space to connect, it creates an atmosphere of openness and safety.

An environment that welcomes new ideas nurtures a culture of learning and innovation.

Having the courage to connect builds deeper team engagement

Relationships and trust are the foundation of a team built for success. In How Deeper Relationships Yield Better Results, Forbes shares a discovery from neuroscientist James Coan, “our brains rely on relationships to steer our cognitive energy and focus our attention on shared goals—critical elements of team success.”

The article elaborates on why it’s better to get close than to keep our distance. “[E]ngaging with people with whom we share an emotional connection is associated with the release of oxytocin...When we feel isolated our brains release stress hormones like cortisol, acerbating social inhibitions and disrupting the kind of free flow of ideas and psychological safety necessary for teams to perform at their highest levels.”

The emotional connection found in meaningful relationships is key. And contrary to what we might expect, connecting on screens can at times be more effective than in person.

With everyone being online, technology is a key enabler. Calvin Yeo, in Building Culture in a Time of Crisis, shares how tech has paved the way for deeper connections between leaders and staff.

“As leaders have become more intentional in communication, technology has become a means to connect directly to more colleagues than ever before,” Calvin says. He shares that in companies like Linde, “Every employee, even those most physically distant, had the opportunity to meet with the company’s senior leaders.”

A video call can put you instantly in contact with people who were previously hard to reach, or who you never thought of talking to before. Take advantage of technology to enable meaningful one-on-ones. Make time for empathetic conversations that help you get to know your people better.

Three ways to build stronger bonds with your team members

Here are three principles from Building Culture in a Time of Crisis that will help leaders build deeper bonds with their team.

Value the worker first, before the work

When you meet with your team, resist the temptation to go straight to business. Check on your people and make sure they are really alright. It may take several conversations before people open up to you. Trust is built by constantly showing up.

Support employees in their life sphere

People have multiple roles in their life spheres and work spheres. These two spheres are now constantly crossing paths. With today’s home-based work, the video call has become a window into our colleague’s life spheres.

“In a way, sometimes it’s a better bond because I actually see your home, I see that you live with your elderly parents, you have three kids running around driving you crazy. I know that you love to cook pasta because that’s what you showed us you had for lunch. Stuff like that,” Alvin Neo, Chief Customer and Marketing Officer, NTUC Enterprise & FairPrice Group, shares.

We’ve come to appreciate our co-workers’ roles as parents or grandparents, siblings, sons and daughters, and friends. Bonds can grow deeper. Though this may be uncomfortable for leaders at first, it can evolve into strong bonds and deeper trust.

Honour people despite not seeing present results

It’s a frustrating time for everyone. We don’t see the same fruits from our efforts as we used to. Staff may doubt themselves and feel discouraged.

Financial results can be unfavourable for a long time. In this constant disruption, there will be inevitable ups and downs. But one thing we can appreciate as leaders is the consistency of our staff in showing up.

This is what we should focus on. Honouring the people, even as the results go up and down.

For the leaders we’ve spoken with, it was important to them to recognise their people for continued contribution, courage, and compassion, for persevering through turbulence.

An example is One CapitaLand, whose leaders organised a virtual ceremony to acknowledge and thank their frontline heroes, volunteers, and staff for their sacrifices and efforts during the crisis.

That’s the heart of a great leader. Even as the business faces a myriad of challenges, you value the lives of your staff.

Having the courage to connect strengthens and inspires the team

Having the courage to connect means listening, even when you feel powerless to help. Listening is a way of being present, and being there for your team.

The courage to connect builds team relationships. This is what your team needs most for survival, and to build strength and resilience for the long run. When leaders give the team opportunities to give input and contribute to discussions, this environment of openness and safety fosters new ideas and innovation. Team members feel valued and are motivated to bring their best to the table.

The discomfort you encounter when first reaching out and listening will be more than worth it. You may find that you not only have a strong and highly motivated team, but you build friends for life.


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