The Social Bond

Troop in Edinburgh - Night

"If this afternoon, you were to lose everything, become a failure in all that you had sought to create, who would stand by you?" 

This is the question I asked of a number of men during a six month period a many years ago.

At the time, I did not realize how traumatizing my question could be. Most of them answered with reflective silence.

The others? "My mother."

None of them were confident that their spouse, their children, their neighbors, the people from their congregation, work, the club or any other social association would hang in there with them during a time of humiliation. In effect, these recognized leaders of their businesses were isolated and alone, alienated from a community of support and caring.

It did not take long to realize that I had to stop asking the question.  It didn't help them. I also realized that I had to become a person who could stand along side of them when they would go through the worst experiences of their personal and professional life. It changed my approach to being a consultant. It elevated my understanding of the relational nature of leadership.

Why is it that these men thought that no one stood with them?

Is it something personal?

Or is it something embedded in the way leadership, professional life and the structure of organizations have developed?

Failure of the sort that I described to them could come as a black swan, out of the nowhere, without expectation. Over the past three years, many people have found themselves in this situation. It points to a fragility that exists in our lives that is buffered by relationships of trust.

Trust is basic to healthy human interaction and the functioning of society.  We diminish the value of trust when it is understood as little more than the basis of economic exchange.

In my post, The Emergent Transformation, I distinguish between human experience that is series of transactions of information and encounters between people, and a transformational one where our interaction creates a higher level engagement.

Here's an example of what I mean.

The closest Starbucks to my home is in my neighborhood grocery store. For most of the baristas, I'm a customer. I come in, order my coffee, pay for it, and leave. Whatever banter we have is rather meaningless, just the sort of talk that accompanies any transaction.

However, there is one young woman who is different. She engages me in conversation. She recognizes me, tells me about her day, asks about mine with genuine interest.

One morning, I walked in and said, "Grande bold, room for cream, please." She starts to laugh. She stops and says, "Sounds like the names of your pets." We both laugh. It is one of those situational jokes (You had to be there.). So about once every three or four visits we talk about my dog, Grande bold, and my cat, Room for cream.

Granted, the barista and I will never become BFFs or colleagues in business. However, the moment we shared that day transcended the typical economic transaction that was the purpose of my visit, and has transformed my relationship to that store.

The Social Bond Online

Over the past decade, an interest in human connection and social networks has grown dramatically. Much of this interest is taking place online through social media platforms. You only have to look at the rise of Facebook to see the extent of the desire that people have to be socially connected to other people.

Many people denigrate the trend towards connection by social media.

"They are not real relationships." 

The relationships that develop are viewed as the online equivalent of a large cocktail party. Lots of meet and greet (search), exchange of contact info (befriending), and a superficial staying in touch (status updates.)

There is a social bond to this shared experience.  Real relating is taking place. Some of it is at a low level of social interaction as describe above. However, some of it is at a personally meaningful level. Social transformation is taking place as our connection deepens with each interaction, and possibilities open up for good things to result.  This is my own experience. 

The social bond is not the online space where we meet. The bond is the connection that we share through a common interest. Our interaction is real and provocative. Like many people, I find people whom are asking similar questions, seeking similar solutions, and who are open to learning from others.

There are two conditions that determine whether the social bond online is superficial or substantive.

The first is the transformational potential of the ideas or common interests that bring people together.

The second is the willingness for participants to allow their interaction to lead the interaction where it needs to go.

As you can see, it isn't being online, but what we do online that matters. By being a particular kind of person, we engage others in such a way that the social bond emerges from its hidden place in the social setting..

Learning to see a social bond

Earlier in my career, I worked at a small college. One of my roles was to develop a student leaders program. For three years I failed as I sought out the top student leaders to form a group focused on leadership. They simply were not interested. Persistence is sometimes not the answer. Changing your approach is.

Over time, and through my doctoral work, I came to see what was in plain sight, but virtually all of us miss when we talk about leadership.

We see leadership as a set of transactions or rather interactions and moments of decision within an organizational context. We think of leadership as a function of process. Is it simply a series of transactions made between people and groups within an business, or is it something more?

When we think only transactionally, we miss seeing the social dimension. 

We touch on it when we talk about collaboration and team work. But if you listen, most talk about improving those aspects of their business is not about the social dimension, but rather the tactical dimension of business processes.  My observation is that most leaders don't address the social dimension until it has become problematic. By ignoring the social dimension, we create a self-profiling prophecy as issues arise that not subject to easy process change.

Let me say it this way.

The last remaining unexplored leverage that leaders have now is the social dimension.

Tactics and processes, while essential, do not address the issues that many businesses now face. Leaders must identify the social bond that exists within their organizations if they are going to find the edge they need for sustainable growth in the future.

I learned this in addressing my own failure with my student leaders program. My approach had been abstract and tactical, lacking in a context for application. So, I shifted my focus to mobilizing student groups through the social bond that brought them together.   

In a college context, there are sports teams, fraternities, sororities, academic clubs, religious groups, advocacy groups and residence halls. In each, a group of students discover each other through a common bond that unites them together. It provides each person connection, a place of belonging, and a sense of identity.  For the group it provides purpose, a reason to exist and possibly as they develop a way to understand the difference they can make as a group.

Connecting Ideas2
In a business context, there are associations based on interest, skills, industry and locale. The social bond unites the executive team, the administrative staff, the sales staff, and back office as uniquely definable groups whose shared work experience provides a basis for connection, belonging and identity.

The leader of the organization has to discover the social bond that unites all the different groups to make them one group. That social bond is wrapped in what I call the four Connecting Ideas. 

When I discovered this perspective, I made two changes to my student leadership program.

The first change was to shift my attention from the individual leader to the group.

The second was to shift my leadership emphasis from teaching abstract principles of leadership to learning to lead within the context of doing it. 

I did this by starting two new activities on campus. One was a campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity International. The second was an afternoon play group for the elementary age children of adolescent mothers in our community. For each, I went to the groups on campus, asking them to sign up for a service weekend with a Habitat affiliate in a nearby county or one of the play days with kids during the semester.  In both instances, groups eagerly stepped forward to sign up and participate. They saw it as a fun, meaningful activity for their group. The leaders within those groups rose to the top as organization as they took on responsibility, with the added benefit of new leaders coming forth who wanted to focus on these new campus activities.

The transcendent character of a social bond

A group's social bond is not a branded idea. While ideas may describe the bond, it is more than an idea. It is instead something emergent. It is something that is whole, that draws people together into a relationship that transcends the moment.

Here's the difference. Your college's basketball team wins the national championship. The streets of town fill up with cheering, celebrating fans. The experience brings people together around their shared joy for their team. But once the cheering stops, the bars close, and baseball season begins, the bonding experience of the post-game celebration is gone.

The social bond is something that people draw upon for meaning and purpose in their relationships within a particular social or organizational context. This is historically been one of the core strengths of religious worship. It isn't just the ideas of faith, but the shared experience of faith that matters. It is a whole shared experience that elevates one's perception of who they are and how their life matters.

For military personnel, the experience of battle is the archtypical bonding experience. This became quite clear to me when I watch for the first time the HBO documentary,  We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company that accompanies the mini-series Band of Brothers.  Lt. Dick Winters commander of the 506 Paratroop Infantry Regiment,Company E speaks about the men under his leadership.

I look upon them ... each man with great respect ... respect that I can't describe ... each one of them proved himself that he could do the job.

The respect which is difficult to describe is the bond that unites them as soldiers. It comes through a shared experience where they were tested as men and as human beings in the crucible of battle during World War II. Shifty Powers describes it.

"You know these people that you are in service with ... you know those people better than you will ever anybody in your life ... you know them right down to the final thing .. that comes when you start your training .. that progresses."

Listen how these men, in many ways not different from people we encounter everday, describe their relationships with one another.


The social bond that these men have exists beyond analytical description. It can't be simply broken up into a collection of ideas or stories.  It goes deeper than that.  Their relationships matter more than just as as a group of acquaintances. Rather, they are forever connected by the bond of shared experience. You can hear it in what they say. 

Here's what Ed Tipper said in the video.

There is an intimacy develops like nothing I've ever experienced anywhere, not in college, not with any other group of people.

It is like the union leader who commented to me during a values identification process with his company.

"I want us to get back to where we were twenty years ago when we were family."

Embedded in these emotions is the social bond that made working for the company or serving in 506PIR Company E something more than a job.  What formed was something fundamentally important to their experience as human beings. We are not solely individuals. We are not simply interchangeable parts in a system of organizational processes. And potentially not just list of friends in a Facebook profile.

Attention to the social bond that exists in organizations is largely missing in our society today. We treat the shared work that human beings do as mechanical scientific processes that are to be performed and measured. By removing the human social element we think we are removing ambiguity and creating efficiency and consistency. Rather, we are diminishing the organization's ability to maximize the potential that resides in each employee. It produces a rush to the bottom of the lowest common denominator level of social experience. The potential that resides in each person cannot be released because it must be done so within a social context that shared purpose and experience. Our potential is not realized solely by individual initiative, but by collaborative action.  At the heart of every team is a social bond waiting to be recognized and released. It is the hidden potential that awaits recognition by organization leaders world wide.

The challenge we confront

Years ago, when I asked people who would stand with them if they failed, unwittingly, I was revealing the absence of the compelling connection that the social bond in an organization can create. The reason for this is not solely the mechanistic principles modern scientific management.  It is also a national culture that seeks to remove risk and danger from every day life. 

When I first watched the We Stand Alone Together documentary of the actual members of Easy Company, I turned to my son and said,

"If you ever find yourself in a group where this is your experience of friendship, consider yourself to be one of the lucky few. Most people go through life never having this kind of experience of human community."

At the heart of the social bond is the recognition that we need one another. Not because we are weak, but rather because we are incomplete as individuals. The togetherness that is realized when this social bond is strong enables men and women from diverse backgrounds to join together to achieve greatness beyond their individual potential.

The challenge before us is to believe that this is true, and to act accordingly. For if this is true, then how we organize our businesses will set the stage for the elevation of the social bond creating a culture of shared human endeavor, that is required more today than every before.

First steps in discovering the social bond that exists in your organization.

I could give the standard analytical process of a set of processes that focus on the development of values and organizational purpose. But I won't, even if at some level that is important.

Instead, just treat each person with openness and honor.

Learning how to do that (I'm assuming we all need to learn to be more open to others, and to honor the best in them), a new social context will emerge that can elevate your company to a new place of shared endeavor.

To be open simply means to listen, to understand, to affirm, to let people try and fail, and to create the expectation that others will be open.

It means letting new people have the opportunity to influence decision-making and direction. It means not assuming control over every aspect of the organization's life.  And from my experience, openness is a powerful attractor for talented people to come work for your business.  It is a signal of authenticity and opportunity.

To honor is to appreciate the value and dignity of each person (see my post Honor and the Lost Art of Diplomacy) .

This is more difficult because it requires us to pay attention to the other people in the room. We must look at them not as human resources or representatives of particular social ideologies. We look at them with dignity and respect, with appreciation for the potential contributions that they can make. In many cases their contribution can only be realized when the social bond creates social strength for the depth of trust and collaboration needed for a challenge moment.

In one way or another, much of our lives is lived standing alone. But it does not have to be this way. To stand alone together is the product of intention, initiative, openness and persistence. It emerges from the thousands of individual encounters that we have where our connection to one another begins to matter beyond getting tasks done.  It is where genuine transformation happens.

Discover the social bond in your business, and you discover the path to a future that is yet to be realized.

The Emergent Transformation

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Creating design-driven innovations requires two assets: knowledge of how people could give meaning to things, and the seductive power to influence the emergence of a radical new meaning.

Roberto Verganti

Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean

Thirty years or so ago, historian James MacGregor Burns published a classic text, simply titled Leadership.   It was the first book on leadership that I had ever read, and it has stuck with me ever since. The reason is a simple comparison that has taken on greater meaning as time has passed. The idea that Burns described in the book was the difference between leadership as a transaction between people, and leadership as transformation. It was this latter notion that he advocated as the way to understand the nature of leadership.

Burns' idea carried such authority that the whole notion of transaction as a the core activity between people in business has been lost. Now it is common for people to talk about how their products transform the experience of their customer. Transformation, which is another word for change, has become a standard upon which we measure businesses, and especially leaders. This is a very good thing.

While we can affirm that this shift of perception has occurred, it doesn't mean that we understand its implications fully. For it may well be that transformation is just another term for transaction. I know you are wondering why this matters. It does seem to be a bit pendantic, but I believe there is something worth discovering about the difference between transaction and transformation.

In simple terms, a transaction is an exchange between two parties. In contrast, transformation points to something changing, of becoming different, growing, expanding and the impact that follows.

Let me describe this in terms of something that I experience everyday.

As a consultant, coach and trainer, it would be easy to create a formula that applies to everyone and every organization. All you need to do is buy the formula. That is the transaction. You buy the product, and our exchange is done.

However, it I take a transformational approach, I'm not selling a formula that you buy from me. Instead, you are buying something else. You are buying a process that leads to the results and the impact of the transaction. The transaction takes place, and it leads to something else. It leads to change.

A transaction therefore is a lower level activity compared to transformation. It is easier. Requires less thought, and can be repeated over and over again. And it works when the circumstances are right, and fails miserably when they are not.

This is an important point. There are activities that we do that are of less significance than others. Higher level activities are actually a combination of many lower level ones, like a commercial transaction. But there is more to it than just an exchange of goods and services.

Why are these higher level activities transformational, rather than simply transactional?

Let's look at this from an organizational perspective.  Here's a personal example of mine.

I chair a committee of a regional organization that serves local chapters. Our committee is also a work team that is planning an event. The event is a day-long workshop with a presenter from out of town.  There is no audience that will automatically show up. We have to recruit them. We discovered from past experience - Our first attempt at holding the event was cancelled in part because only three people signed up. - that a "transactional" approach doesn't work.  By transactional, I mean, treating the event as an activity that provides expert information. We had to offer more. Not more information, but something different, an experience that held the promise that it would matter, make a difference, that it would be transformational. 

A transformational approach requires a different mindset. It is a more complex approach. It functions at a higher level of organization. The popular term for this is emergent.

Emergent gets alot of use. It is sometimes use as a word for new or for revealing new aspects of something. The way I use is it something different. Sociologist Christian Smith provides a helpful, though rather academic, description of what it means for something to be emergent.

Emergence refers to the process of constituting a new entity with its own particular characteristics through the interactive combination of other, different entities that are necessary to create the new entity but that do not contain the characteristics present in the new entity. Emergence involves the following: First, two or more entities that exist at a “lower” level interact or combine. Second, that interaction or combination serves as the basis of some new, real entity that has existence at a “higher” level. Third, the existence of the new higher-level entity is fully dependent upon the two or more lower-level entities interacting or combining, as they could not exist without doing so. Fourth, the new higher-level entity nevertheless possesses characteristic qualities (e.g. structures, qualities, capacities, textures, mechanisms) that cannot be reduced to those of the lower-level entities that gave rise to the new entity possessing them. When these four things happen, emergence has happened. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
- Christian Smith, What is a person?, pp.25-26 (emphasis mine).

Let me take these four contributing factors to something becoming emergent and show how they are functioning in my illustration above.

First, our event is designed for individuals who have a particular interest in our topic.

We shifted our emphasis from here's an informative workshop to here's a gathering of people who are dealing with the same issues in their local chapter, which meets the second criteria.

Part of our purpose is the third criteria, which is to bring people together so that they form supportive relationships that transcend, yet support, their local individuality. We want to create an atmosphere where there is ongoing interaction after our event.

Fourth, a movement that transforms each local chapter can grow, emerged from the experience. We want to be more than an association of people who occasionally gather (transaction-level). We are creating a community of support and interaction that is transformational. It not only changes us as individuals, but also changes the local chapters through the connectional relationships that are formed.

Apply this idea to organizations, we see that much of what we understand about organizations is functioning at the transactional level, a lower-level of order than what is needed.

A business organized around transaction sees only the activities or tasks that people do. A person is hired. They are assigned work. They do their work. The transaction is complete. In an ideal world, this is the best that a transactional approach offers.

This simple understanding of organizations is just that, overly simplistic, idealistic and largely false. Most organization, regardless of size are filled with the ambiguity and complexity that inhabits all of life. A change in the environment or with technology or policies and regulations, and the organization experiences disruption. In other words, change turns a simple organization on paper into a complex one in real life.

I saw this in a hosiery mill where I once worked on a project. There were seventeen steps in the process of making a pair of socks. Because each stage was its own discrete activity, disconnected from all the others, it took six weeks from weaving to shipping to manufacture a pair of socks. This was a simple transactional approach to manufacturing as it saw each step as it own transactional system. Through out project, the company decided to change their manufacturing system. They integrated the steps of the system, and the transformation of the process reduced the time required for producing a pair of socks to six days.

For an organization to shift from a transactional orientation to a transformational one requires it to move from an understanding of business as a structure of discrete processes to a culture that creates a product that matters in the marketplace. This culture, I'm suggesting, is what theorists call an "emergent reality."  It is so because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Consider what Apple did when it created the iPod. It was a music player in many respects like many others that were being produed. Except their player transformed the entire experience of personal music listening. It was a transformational product because Apple wanted to change the culture that surrounded that transaction that took place commercially.

What is it that businesses miss that keeps them from this transformation?

Partly it has to do with values.

Every company espouses a set of values. They are printed on cards, posters and are part of the boilerplate language of advertising. You can hear it.

"The most trusted name in ... ." 

This is transactional treatment of values. It is just an exchange of a word or two to convey a meaning.  It is this approach that makes it possible for a company to say it believes in one thing and act in another. Their values are not their culture. They are jingles for sales transactions.

When values transcend the transactional, they create a culture that unites and transforms the company into something different. I've written about my experience with Dayton Power & Light where a project to develop a values statement transcended the card upon which it is printed to begin the transformation of the company. The outcoem of that transformation has been recognition by Forbes magazine as one of the 100 Most Trustworthy Companies in America.

How do you create an emergent organizational culture?

First, you have to distinguish the difference between a company's organizational structure and its culture.

The structure can be reduced down to each individual position, task, department and objective. The culture permeates the whole of the business from the CEO down to the janitor. It is not reducible. It is whole. This means that if the company's values are trust and fairness, then those values are the basis of how each person functions from the CEO down to the janitor. There are not one set of values for one level of the structure, and a different set for another level. Culture is whole throughout.

This is why so many companies are having difficulty adapting to a changed global economic climate. Some people within the company benefit, while others don't.  This is a product of structural design, not cultural development.

Second, there is culture in every organization. It can be whole, yet broken or deficient.

How then do leaders focus on cultural change which produces long term cultural development.

An example is the company where the founder is still in charge, and has never let anyone make a final decision. So the company is full of passive followers, not people who know how to take individual initiative when needed. The value of that company is diminished because without the lone decision-maker the culture is not sustainable.

This specific issue is one of the most significant challenges facing contemporary organizations and institutions. It is a matter transforming the culture of the company into a shared leadership one, sharing from top to bottom.

Third, there are multiple cultures within every company or social environment.

In some cases we may call them silos. These cultures compete for turf and resources. Their individual self-interest is greater than their collective interest in the welfare of the company. As a result, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The parts can be parasitic within the whole, eroding capacity and strengthen to serve private or limited interests.

The challenge for leaders is to learn to lead from a values perspective. In so doing, to unify the disconnected cultures to join in become one. You cannot attack the micro-cultures. You must identify within each of these cultures the values that are worth affirming and spead of them in a manner that demonstrates their connection to the values of the whole.

I know it sounds far-fetched, but I have seen it work. It is a matter of the difference between a transactional and transformation work culture.

Fourth, you have to quantify how the values of a culture are measured and managed with personnel.

My colleague Bill Kelley has shown me how "values can be a condition of employment." Similar in idea to the idea that values must be "operationalized." The deeper you go in understanding the importance of your values to the success of your company, the more those values will shape the culture of the company.

This transformational approach means that managers must align new hires with the values of the company, and manage them accordingly.

Fifth, an organizational culture is a human, social, relationship phenomenon.

It is about how a company becomes a community. For  some businesses, their culture is shaped by the notion of being a family, where caring is an important aspect of their relationships with one another. For others it is fun, like at Zappos. In others, it is innovation, or excellence, or trustworthiness. Whatever the culture is, it is reflected in the relationships and social environment of the organization.

Sixth, an organization culture is based upon a set of shared ideas.

Principally, values, but not exclusively.  When I refer to Connecting Ideas, I am referring to ideas that are the foundation of an organizational culture. A company's mission; it's values; a vision for the future; and, a clearly defined understanding of the impact that the company is to have provide a way for people to connect together and share a common interest in the success of their collaborative efforts. These ideas are not just tactical points to use in a process. They are the glue which brings together people to make a difference together that is more than what they can do individually. 

In effect, the connecting power of these ideas are the transformative agent for change in an organization. They must connect. They must matter beyond their inspiration power. They must guide decisions, define performance and create a culture that is whole and emergent.

Creating an emerging transformational culture is not an end in itself. It is rather a pathway. It is one that leaders can take to transform their organizations to meet the opportunities of the future in the present.