How to build connection at work with Dr. Spencer Harrison

Liz Fosslien
Head of comms and content

A few weeks ago, we were lucky enough to be joined by Dr. Spencer Harrison as part of our regular Science & Snacks series in which our co-founder and Head of People Science Dr. Jessie Wisdom hosts a fireside chat with a prominent expert. Spencer is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. His research focuses on creating, coordinating, and connecting. 

Spencer’s work draws inspiration from a wide range of industries; he has studied modern dancers, Grammy-winning bands, rock climbers, employees and managers at Fortune 100 firms, T-shirt designers, and people living on analog Mars.

Below is an excerpt from the discussion between Jessie and Spencer.

Dr. Jessie Wisdom (JW): I’ve had the privilege and fun of working with Spencer on a yet-to-be-published project on newcomer socialization in organizations, and can attest that he is beyond a great researcher. Today he's going to talk through his recent research into what kinds of conversations lead to continued connections at work. Welcome, Spencer!

Dr. Spencer Harrison (SH): Thanks, Jessie, it’s an honor to be here! So this particular project is a little bit of a weird one. I got an email from somebody at a really large company saying, “Spencer, we have this amazing R&D Group of about 1,000 employees. They're all highly trained computer scientists who do a great job working in their small scrum teams. But getting the teams to actually communicate with each other is hard. Is there anything you could do that might help people build relationships in this organization?”

We decided to pull questions from a famous study by Arthur Aron and colleagues that’s known as the love study. The researchers wanted to understand how to generate a stronger sense of what they were calling interpersonal closeness or intimacy. They devised a set of 36 questions that required an increasing level of personal disclosure.

What made this study famous was that two of the individuals that were randomly paired up for the experiment ended up falling in love and getting married. As a result, it became known as the love study.  Years later it was popularized in The New York Times.

JW: So you had the computer scientists ask each other the 36 questions?

SH: Not all of them! We pulled five questions from the list and then created 500 randomly designed conference call numbers and had the computer scientists have conference calls with each other. They could opt to record the conversation. 

We set up five different conditions. I’ll focus on just a few today: we had one where they were asked these five questions with “at work” appended, and the other one where those two words were removed, so the questions felt more personal. Think, “What would be a perfect day for you at work?” versus “What would be a perfect day for you?” In another condition, we gave one person the work questions and the other the personal questions.

JW: Ah, that’s so interesting. And what happened?

SH: We found that the person who was asking the work questions realized the other questions were more fun. They would eventually say, “Let's just ask your questions, because I like what's going on there a little bit better.”

We also found that if you had a conversation with somebody that you'd never known before, it led to an increase in trust and reduced anxiety about a future interaction. In other words, anything you do to have contact with somebody reduces the threshold to have contact with them again.

JW: So any kind of conversation increases trust and reduces anxiety. What about continued connection?

SH: Ah yes, so we actually did something that was sort of a lark. We sent a follow up email two weeks later, where we asked, “Have you had any additional connection with this person?” That included connecting on LinkedIn, sending a chat or email, or having another phone call. We basically wanted to learn: Did this first conversation lead to some other interaction?

We found that the only people who reconnected were those that talked about the more life-oriented questions. When we analyzed the transcripts from all the initial conversations, we saw that when you talk about work, you tend to use achievement-oriented language. You focus on things like, “What I have accomplished” or “What have I done.”  And because now I’m just listening to a catalog of what you've achieved, I tune out and you don’t feel heard. So it leaves both individuals feeling like you’re just connecting so you can accomplish some future task, rather than because you’re two people trying to figure out what it means to be human beings on this planet together.

JW: So what advice would you give organizations based on those findings?

SH: Well to start, having any sort of interaction between employees is good. But we're more likely to make a connection if we're not talking about work because personal conversations make us want to listen to each other. So I’d encourage organizations to facilitate more personal discussions. Lots of companies will put together mixers or networking events where people are left to just start asking questions, but if those are only work-focused, they probably won’t lead to any future interaction. 

As one of my colleagues and Humu advisor Adam Grant said, “The best networking happens when people get together for a purpose other than networking.” Once you begin talking about your best day rather than your best day at work, you connect on a deeper level.

We all feel like we're so busy that we don't have time to connect, and yet we all deeply want to connect.

I often run an exercise with executives where I’ll give them the five questions and send them off for 45 minutes to talk. Everyone always asks, “Why did you only give us 45 minutes? We could have talked for much longer because the questions just naturally branched off into longer conversations.” We all feel like we're so busy that we don't have time to connect, and yet we all deeply want to connect. It just takes us having the will, and perhaps having some really good questions on hand, to create those opportunities for each other.

JW: Thank you so much!