4 Science-Backed Pathways to High-Quality Connections

We’re all wired to crave human connection. And those connections don’t need to be lengthy or substantial. They can be brief and casual. A 5-minute talk with someone at a stoplight. A short online correspondence. All of those can qualify.

October 24, 2022
Alyssa Birnbaum

Lawrence, a talented, 74-year-old NYC amateur photographer, was recently interviewed on Humans of New York (HONY). In his raw HONY interview, as he reflects on his loneliness and  needs for human connectivity, he shares:

“Every once in awhile people will leave a comment (on a photo he posts). And that’s icing on the cake. That also feels like a connection in some way. And I need that. I need a connection of some sort to make me feel human… For me to feel like I’m somehow part of the world.”

As a retired man who lives alone, those micro-connections – the comments on his Flickr page – mean everything to him. They make him feel alive.

We’re all wired to crave human connection. And those connections don’t need to be lengthy or substantial. They can be brief and casual. A 5-minute talk with someone at a stoplight. A short online correspondence. All of those can qualify.

At work, many of us were trained to act professionally and focus strictly on work. During meetings, we often jump straight to the subject at hand. Chatting is often seen as a form of procrastination or distraction.

However, there is substantial evidence that high-quality connections at work can be tremendously beneficial, both for individuals and for our companies.

In this post, we’ll highlight the research on high-quality connections in the workplace, and how leaders can create a work atmosphere that encourages high-quality connections among colleagues.

What Are High-Quality Connections?

High-quality connections are short-term, positive interactions that happen between two people. As mentioned, connections don’t always look the same – they can be short or long, and they can happen once or repeatedly. They can evolve into a friendship or deep relationships, but high-quality connections can even happen between strangers.

A connection is “high-quality” when it’s characterized by three elements:

  1. Positive Regard: Feeling known, loved, and accepted by the other person.
  2. Mutuality: A sense of active participation, openness, and receptivity.
  3. Vitality: Generating energy and aliveness.

Even short interactions can have powerful ramifications – potentially as short as 40 seconds. Physicians Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli reviewed 5 experimental studies where they found that sick patients who engaged in compassionate conversations with their doctor for less than 40 seconds experienced lower anxiety.

What Are The Benefits Of High-Quality Connections?

Engaging in high-quality social connections leads to a range of personal and company-wide benefits. Research suggests that ongoing high-quality connections can help:

  • Amplify creativity. Positive relationships can influence ideation and the creative process for both individuals and teams by encouraging people to engage with each other respectfully (Carmeli et al., 2015).
  • Enhance resilience. High-quality connections enhance resilience in both individuals and teams. When engaging in high-quality connections, people tend to be more expressive, sharing both positive and negative emotions. This helps them feel closer to one another, which in turn, boosts their resilience (Stephens et al., 2013).
  • Decrease stress. Positive social connections calm people’s sympathetic nervous systems, which then lowers their levels of stress (Altemus et al., 1997).
  • Improve health and longevity. A review of research articles in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database showed that social integration led to better mental health and longer life expectancy, whereas social isolation led to lower immune function and higher health risks (Seeman, 1996).
  • Fuel engagement and learning. The benefits people gain from social connections contributes to their work engagement and compels them to discuss and debate different options, supporting learning and growth (Dutton, 2003).
  • Encourage cooperation and coordination. High-quality connections elicit better teamwork, as employees are more likely to productively work with one another when they are socially connected (Dutton, 2003).

How Can Leaders Encourage High-Quality Connections?

Jane Dutton, the Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Emerita Professor of Business Administration and Psychology at the University of Michigan, **has published several books and a range of scientific articles on high-quality connections. She suggests that there are 4 different pathways to help enable high-quality connections at work: respectful engagement, task enabling, trust, and play. Below, we’ll explain each pathway and how you, as a leader, can promote each one.

1. Respectful Engagement

Respectful engagement is the act of being present and wholly engaged in conversations. By communicating and listening in a way that shows that you appreciate and care about the other person, you demonstrate that you truly value them.

Respectful engagement can include leaving your phone off the table when you’re talking to someone, making eye contact and using your body language to express your engagement during conversations, refraining from multi-tasking, repeating back and paraphrasing what your colleague is saying, and being empathetic.

How to encourage respectful engagement:

  • Nix multitasking. If you notice that your team members tend to multitask during meetings, ask them explicitly in the beginning of meetings to refrain from doing so.
  • Role model respectful engagement with your body language. Uncross your arms, lean forward, gesture/nod appropriately, and make eye contact.
  • Show appreciation. Demonstrate that you value others by expressing your appreciation and encouraging others to do the same - perhaps adding a weekly tradition where people can exchange shout-outs to anyone who went out of their way, did outstanding work, or acted kindly to support their team members.

2. Task Enabling

Task enabling is the act of helping others achieve their goals or their successful performance. Leaders aren’t the only ones who can offer help – task enabling transcends the organization chart, as anyone can support their work colleagues.

Task enabling can include sharing new ideas, accommodating your peers, sharing helpful resources such as articles, talking through challenging situations together to come up with a solution, and generally working together to offer help and support.

How to encourage task enabling:

  • Share resources. Create a chat channel (for example, on Slack or Teams) or a shared folder with resources such as interview scripts, helpful articles, or examples of past projects. Encourage your team to all add to it. To encourage its use, ask your team members about what they’ve added, or highlight some of the resources you’ve personally added.
  • Collaborate. Set up dedicated meetings to work through problems collaboratively and to learn from one another. This can be particularly important if your team is working remotely, since they can’t naturally walk over to each other.
  • Reward support. Rather than rewarding people for their individual efforts, you should reward team efforts and supportive behaviors. For instance, you can take your team out to lunch if they reach a sales goal rather than recognize the individual who makes the most sales.
  • Buddy up. If you have newer members on your team, match them up with a buddy or a mentor who has been at the company for longer. That gives them a go-to person to ask questions and help them get up to speed faster.  For more tips on best practices for new hires, see our onboarding post.

3. Trusting

Trusting is a combination of integrity (acting morally), dependability (being honest and reliable) and benevolence (demonstrating kindness) between people. When two people mutually trust one another, they expect that the other person will respond in their best interest, allowing them to be more vulnerable, authentic, and take risks.

Trusting can include giving team members control to meet their own deadlines, refraining from undermining colleagues, and encouraging collaborative efforts where each person needs to depend on one another to get the job done.

How to encourage trusting:

  • Encourage viewpoint diversity. Ask your team members to listen to and strongly consider other points of view. In meetings, ensure everyone is heard and has a chance to speak up. If specific team members have a tendency to withhold their opinions in groups, talk to them privately to hear their viewpoint or call on them during meetings to share their thoughts,  depending on their comfort level.
  • Avoid micromanaging. Refrain from micromanaging by giving your team a chance to meet their own deadlines without constantly checking in. Demonstrate that you trust that your team will perform their best work or reach out to you if they have questions.
  • Provide resources. If you trust that your team is going to do excellent work, set them up for success. This may require getting more money or support from higher-level management to get the equipment, software, or additional staff that’s needed for your team to achieve their goal.
  • Do your homework. Come prepared with your facts and numbers to establish credibility, and encourage others to do the same.
  • Admit mistakes. Be willing to admit when you don’t know something, and encourage others to ask questions as well. Creating a psychologically safe environment encourages people to trust one another.

4. Play

Although a seemingly odd fit in this list, play encourages spontaneity, risk-taking, loss of self-consciousness, and fun. Through play, people are more likely to act as their true selves, and share personal information in a way that helps them connect to one another.

Play can include team building exercises, sharing funny articles/tweets/memes, or ice-breakers.

How to encourage play:

  • Create ice-breaker prompts. Set aside a few minutes in the beginning of some of your meetings for ice-breakers that help people get to know one another. Find some great ideas for ice-breakers here.
  • Organize team-building events. Team-building can help both in-person and remote teams bond on a deeper level. See our post on team-building for some great ideas!
  • Set up spaces for play. Set up a Slack channel or a dedicated forum for jokes, funny exchanges, memes, and amusing articles.


High-quality connections are short-term, positive interactions that are energizing. They are linked to a range of benefits that can substantially impact the health, well-being, and performance of your team.

This post highlights 4 research-based pathways that can encourage high-quality connections - respectful engagement, task enabling, trusting, and play - and explains how you can encourage each of those pathways.


Altemus, M., Redwine, L., Leong, Y. M., Yoshi- kawa, T., Yehuda, R., Detera-Wadleigh, S., & Murphy, D. L. (1997). Reduced sensitivity to glucocorticoid feedback and reduced glucocorticoid receptor mRNA expression in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. Neuropsychopharmacology, 17, 100–109.

Carmeli, A., Dutton, J. E., & Hardin, A. E. (2015). Respect as an engine for new ideas: Linking respectful engagement, relational information processing and creativity among employees and teams. Human Relations, 68(6), 1021-1047. DOI: 10.1177/0018726714550256

Dutton, J. E. (2003). Energize your workplace: how to create and sustain high-quality connections at work (1st ed., Ser. University of Michigan Business School management series). Jossey-Bass.

Seeman, T. E. (1996). Social ties and health: The benefits of social integration. Annals of epidemiology, 6(5), 442-451.

Stephens, J. P., Heaphy, E. D., Carmeli, A., Spreitzer, G. M., & Dutton, J. E. (2013). Relationship quality and virtuousness: emotional carrying capacity as a source of individual and team resilience. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 49(1), 13–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886312471193

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