More connectivity is resulting in fewer connections

As technology increases, seemingly bringing us closer together, are we neglecting real relationship building?

Speaker of the most-ever watched TED talk Simon Sinek and award-winning reporter-columnist for The New York Times Thomas Friedman, independent of one another, recently shared perspectives on the role of technology in our workplace and society. Taken together, they suggest that mobile devices are leading us to neglect the very same human connections that we need more than ever to succeed.

Shared via a YouTube interview, Sinek's argument is in the context of how millennials use technology, yet his commentary applies to most of us and our obsession with how we use mobile devices.

He explains that receiving a text, for example, literally feels good to us and that science has proven it triggers dopamine. That’s the very same feel-good chemical the body releases as a result of our smoking, drinking, or gambling habits. His point: texting is addictive.

This addiction drives many of us to seize every moment of "downtime" as an opportunity for "uptime," by sending and receiving texts and emails. Before meetings, during meetings, at meals, in the car, etc. – times when we’re actually sitting with colleagues, friends, or family.

But, he argues, these tech-based social relationships we nurture are superficial and fleeting. And while we’re feeding this addiction, we’re ruining the ability to create and nurture genuinely deep, meaningful relationships – often with the people right next to us.

Thomas Friedman’s January 4 column starts out by citing how software is writing poetry, sports stories, and business news, and how IBM’s Watson is even co-writing pop music hits.   

His main point is that technology is "not just outworking us but starting to outthink us in more and more realms." So, as asked by Friedman’s friend Dov Seidman of the company LRN, "What does it mean to be a human in the age of intelligent machines?"

Friedman and Seidman suggest the answer lies in the emotional centers of our brains – what we have traditionally called "heart." The heart is where we find love, compassion, empathy, and emotion. Humans, both Friedman and Seidman argue, can uniquely build deep relationships of trust and will need to create more value "with hearts and between hearts."

Friedman wrapped up his perspective by saying: "Leaders, businesses, and communities will still leverage technology to gain an advantage, but those that put human connection at the center of everything they do — and how they do it — will be the enduring winners."

I would further suggest that this thinking has deep resonance with the Page Society’s recent white paper on the role of the future chief communications officer. The paper makes a strong case that they must break corporate silos and emerge as leaders of and participants in cross-functional collaboration.

So, put Sinek’s and Friedman’s points of view next to one another and what do you find? A paradox, and one we need to urgently consider: what does it mean if our competitive advantage at work depends on the very personal connections and relationships we are not building?

The very thing that will be our most important asset is being neglected by most of us. And the implications for satisfaction and happiness go well beyond the workplace.

What do we do about this? I welcome your thoughts.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and partner of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm owned by ICF International. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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