In 1975, Dr. Edward Tronick and colleagues at Harvard’s Child Development Unit conducted what they called the “Still Face Experiment” in which they recorded a mother and infant child interacting normally, only to then ask the mother to appear again before the child silent, expressionless and without interaction. Instantly, the child sensed something was wrong, that her mother was no longer present with her. The child cycled through a series of actions and reactions in a desperate attempt to bring elicit normal, loving interaction from her mother. Finally, the child erupted in anger and frustration at her inability to connect. Per Dr. Tronick, the children in the experiment, when confronted with an unemotional response, “…get negative emotions, they turn away, they feel the stress of it.”

Dr. David Puder, in writing about the experiment, observes that when a child enters “shut down or disassociation” mode, the brain reacts strongly, shutting down certain higher level functioning areas and forever burning the memory of where the incident took place on the mind.

We humans are basically wired to connect. It is how we form bonds, innovate, extend our reach and, on a fundamental level, survive in a world that can be harsh and unwelcoming. When we connect strongly and successfully, it expands our experience of life. When we don’t, as the children in the experiment show, our entire being revolts, desperate to bridge the gap and find ourselves warmly connected once again. Negative connection breeds negative emotions, which in turn creates anger, frustration and stress.

Oddly enough, negative emotion seems to be the modus operandi in this year’s US Presidential campaign. Donald Trump’s campaign in particular is a behavioral experiment in anger, frustration and the belief that some “other” is responsible for the ills that impact the lives of many Americans. The concerns of those who support him are real and widespread, the result of decades-long structural changes that have permanently altered the kinds of opportunities available to the labor force. But it’s not the underlying truths that concern me. It’s how those truths are channeled and directed. Witness the growing threat of violence at Trump campaign rallies and the pretzel logic he employs in response. These rallies may foster a form of connection, but the connection is unlikely to yield healthy long-term results.

If connecting with others is an inherent human need, one we sometimes express with people or groups that fill immediate needs while setting the stage for corrosive future behaviors, what role does a leader play in leveraging the power of connection? A leader, quite simply, creates and sustains it. And how does the leader do this? Through the model she creates, in word and deed, of what good connection looks and feels like: Is it genuine? Is it aimed toward ethical growth and positive outcomes for the many? Is it constant, or only leveraged when a specific end is desired? While a leader cannot singlehandedly be involved in every exchange, every conversation, every experience, she sets the tone of what is acceptable and unacceptable connection on behalf of her people.

A great leader connection with the same care and respect that a loving mother does, knowing a strong, supportive connection is the foundation for positive, sustainable growth. A poor or unskilled leader treats the connection carelessly and selfishly – “How can I get these people on my side for my own ends?” It’s been my unfortunate observation that our human need for connection and inclusion can leave us ripe for abuse by leaders whose ends are less than scrupulous. I’ve seen people crushed by bad leaders, at one point willing to go the extra mile in a spirit of purpose only to have that spirit maltreated when the deeper intent of the leader is laid bare. And such behavior can have a deleterious, second-hand effect on whole teams, as noted by Alice G. Walton in Forbes.

What links the Still Face Experiment, Trump campaign rallies and effective leadership is this: the capacity and desire for human connection as a tremendous, necessary and life affirming pursuit. Whether one leads a company, a country, a team or a family, connection is the means through which you create present focus and future outcomes. The responsibility for the safe nurturing and expression of that connection is the leader’s. By understanding this responsibility fully, a leader can leave a profound, permanent mark. Abuse it, and you engender negative emotions, stress and disassociation.

Even the youngest of us wants to be connected, nurtured and supported. Would that all leaders, everywhere, respect and protect that basic human need.





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