Unlocking the Power of Connection with Steven Van Cohen

Steven Van Cohen believes social disconnection is a silent epidemic in the workplace. Steven, best-selling author and connection expert joined host Nikki Lewallen Gregory on Gut + Science to dive into the importance of fostering authentic connections in the workplace. This conversation traverses the landscape of employee engagement, revealing how a focus on intentionality in relationships boosts performance and well-being. Steven brings to the table personal stories, strategies for enhancing team cohesion through impactful engagement initiatives such as impact lunches, and insights on the importance of recognizing individual behavior and love languages. He cites clients like Netflix and Core Mining as exemplars in creating culture-rich onboarding and check-in processes. Check out the recap below.

Communicate to Connect, Not Just to Say the Thing

In our era of endless video calls, relentless emails, and incessant group chats, we’re communicating more than ever before. Yet paradoxically, loneliness and social disconnection have reached epidemic proportions. As Steven Van Cohen, best-selling author and renowned culture consultant, emphatically stated: “It’s a real tragedy when people go to work and don’t have anybody there that they really care about or who makes them feel cared about.”

The startling statistics bear this out. 72% of people report feeling socially disconnected every month, with 55% experiencing that disconnect weekly. And among Gen Z professionals just entering the workforce, a sobering 79% sometimes or always feel alone.

This disconnection carries severe consequences for businesses. Socially disconnected employees are seven times more likely to be disengaged from their work. Gallup found that disengaged workers make 66% more mistakes and are five times more likely to miss work due to stress or illness. Teams with strong social bonds consistently outperform disconnected groups by three times. Perhaps most alarmingly, people are 313% more likely to quit when they lack meaningful connections with colleagues.

The Crucial Difference Between Communication and Connection

At the heart of the crisis is a fundamental misunderstanding: We tend to equate communication with connection. But as Van Cohen explains, our brains process these experiences completely differently.

Communication simply involves the transactional exchange of information, engaging the frontal lobe of the brain as we convey data, facts, and figures. True connection, however, is something else entirely. It happens in a separate region when two people are fully in sync, displaying empathy, asking insightful questions, making eye contact, and making each other feel genuinely seen and valued.

“The idea of social disconnection or loneliness is when someone feels seen through,” Van Cohen says. “When we communicate at people, we’re just talking very surface level…oftentimes it’s not enough for me to pull you in and get that sensation of ‘Wow, she really wants to hear what I have to say.'”

Intentionally Creating Connection

Most leaders fall into the trap of assuming that connection will simply happen organically through casual conversations or social events like happy hours. But Van Cohen stresses that connection requires intentional effort and strategic planning.

“Leaders oftentimes are not intentionally doing those kinds of things,” he explains. “What they think is that connection is organically happening throughout the day…but there needs to be intentionality behind it. And that’s the big missing piece for a lot of leaders.”

He cites the example of leaders kicking off meetings by quickly asking, “How was everyone’s weekend?” While well-intentioned, that type of cursory question rarely cultivates genuine connection. In contrast, explicitly setting aside dedicated time for team members to share openly creates space for people to feel heard and bonded.

Making the Business Case for Connection

While the human toll of disconnection is clear, Van Cohen notes that most company leaders still treat relationships and belonging as “nice-to-haves” rather than strategic priorities directly tied to business performance.

The research, however, tells a different story. Van Cohen spent the first 100 pages of his latest book amassing data that undeniably links connection to every metric of organizational health and success: “Our relationships are key to retention, performance, engagement, health, wellbeing, overall satisfaction, and every other metric you can think of from a business performance standpoint.”

From dismal stock prices and financial returns to excessive errors, absenteeism, and turnover, Van Cohen argues that companies simply cannot afford cultures of disconnection and isolation. When interactions lack warmth, understanding, and mutual investment, the compounding costs become unsustainable.

Modeling Intentional Connection

So how can companies reverse the disconnection trend? Van Cohen shares powerful examples from clients who have made connection a conscious priority:

At Netflix, the company rethought its full onboarding experience. Using a compatibility tool, new hires get matched with seasoned employees across the organization for a series of structured “connection journeys.” Through these tailored activities spread over their first 90 days, new team members rapidly build their social capital and sense of belonging.

For a mining company facing existential threats to its business, establishing more frequent personal check-ins between leaders and team members sparked a remarkable turnaround. Despite the company’s stock price plummeting from $12 to just $2 per share, the simple act of managers asking “How are you doing?”, “What are you focused on?”, and “How can I help?” in brief weekly touch-bases boosted engagement by 67% and retention by 77%.

Simple Activities for Fostering Connection

While strategies will vary based on company culture and needs, Van Cohen recommends several straightforward practices to ingrain more opportunities for connection:

Impact Lunches: Periodically gather the team simply to recognize great work and positive impact. Making people feel significant and appreciated is a powerful bonding force.

Personal Spotlights: Take turns having the full group shine a spotlight on one team member, showering them with authentic affirmation about why they are valued and appreciated. Despite initial discomfort, these candid displays of gratitude prove incredibly unifying.

Team Check-Ins: At a regular cadence, each person rates their recent week on a simple A-F scale, sharing what circumstances influenced that score. This exercise promotes self-awareness while allowing teammates to understand and support each other’s unique experiences.

The Role of Behavioral Assessments

Leveraging behavioral assessments like StrengthsFinder, DISC, or love languages can also aid efforts to make people feel truly seen and understood. As Van Cohen notes, “If that’s giving you some of the insights to help you better show up for that person, then that is an absolute positive contribution to my ability to make you feel a certain way.”

At its core, communicating to connect emanates from an underlying posture of presence, curiosity, and intentionality. It’s about crafting experiences that counter isolation and make people feel genuinely cared for at work. And as the compelling data reinforces, that’s not just the right thing to do for our colleagues. In a world of relentless disruption and economic headwinds, fostering cultures of connection may be the ultimate structural advantage.


Listen to the episode: Gut + Science | Episode 246: Unlocking the Power of Connection with Steven Van Cohen

Key Takeaways:

  • The transformative power of intentional connections in the workplace
  • Strategies for overcoming leadership resistance to prioritizing relationships
  • The role of social connections in enhancing work performance and well-being
  • Innovative engagement initiatives to strengthen team bonding and recognition
  • The impact of prosocial behaviors on effective communication and genuine connection

Things to listen for:

00:00 Many feel socially disconnected due to misconceptions.

05:48 Leaders must genuinely connect, not just superficially.

07:18 Prioritizing impact over checking the box is important.

11:33 Strong social connections benefit performance, retention, engagement.

13:49 Client loss impacts team morale, prioritize people.

16:44 CEO disconnects with staff, crisis with 60% layoffs

20:55 Netflix uses Rivet for employee onboarding experience.

25:42 Lunch bonding, personal spotlight, and team check-ins.

27:02 Team check-ins promote clarity, support, and feedback.

30:55 Superstitious revelation: painted pink toenail brought blessings.

34:51 Connection in communication leads to engagement and success.

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