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TransformationOct 19, 2021

Are You a Manager or a Connector? Why Your Team Needs Both

Emily Schulhoff and Kathryn Thompson

Who is the "glue" on your team? That person other team members consult when things go wrong, when they feel confused, or feel uncertain about the team's direction? They may not necessarily be managing how the puzzle comes together, but they are the common denominator holding everyone together. This "connector" role drives alignment, provides a safe space for teams, and fosters productivity through empathy and listening. Without the connector, teams risk reduced output and missed goals.  

I recently sat down with Emily Schulhoff, Credera Partner, to discuss how the leadership tactics we've employed in the past are still relevant to creating successful team alignment in the hybrid working world. Throughout the course of our careers, Emily and I have both led large and strategic programs, but we’ve also led in another key role: integrating our team together as the connector. 

Empathy in the Workplace

During our discussion, Emily shared an article she read recently from MIT Sloan Review that features advice from a book with a new take on empathy in the workplace. 

Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, authors of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work, provide several insights on the value of emotions and empathy in the workplace, and we’ve highlighted those we believe are most critical to achieving team alignment: 

  • When feelings aren’t addressed or acknowledged at work, they do not go away; they emerge in unproductive ways. 

  • Creating positive interactions when the team comes together increases connectedness among the team. 

  • Leaders can be transparent and vulnerable while still prioritizing stability and psychological safety for the team. 

As we talked about these key activities—leading from a place of empathy, checking in with our teams, and practicing selective vulnerability—two distinct archetypes for team harmony quickly emerged: the manager and the connector.

The manager: The head of a division, a team, or a project. They hold the entity together from a practical, programmatic standpoint: meeting deadlines, respecting budgets, and ensuring high-quality outcomes. Pursuant to No Hard Feelings’ paradigm for empathy in the workplace, the manager enables positive interactions; they model openness while prioritizing work and program stability.

The connector: The glue that holds the team together, creating a safe space for empathy, understanding, and vulnerability. No Hard Feelings’ framework might categorize the connector as the person who drives connectedness on the team, and who responds to team members who are struggling to process unaddressed emotions.

The Manager, The Connector & Trust

In our experiences, we found that the manager is often also the connector; however, it’s also common that two distinct team members fill these roles. In a working world where our in-person and virtual interactions are constantly evolving, we believe both roles are critical to enabling sustainable and healthy program team interactions. As long as the manager and connector collaborate, they can split the responsibilities of caring for and enabling the team.

I saw these roles play out in real life when I found myself in the role of a connector on a large team. I remembered feeling like my team considered me as a processing station along their journey to discern what help they needed from the team or at our client and how to ask for it. 

My role was inherently non-technical, and I often couldn’t help them solve complex technical problems, but I provided value by helping them process whatever was holding them back from asking the right question to the right person. The manager, in my experience, encouraged and supported me in my role as connector. They ensured I had the support I needed to give the support asked of me. 

These two distinct roles are critical to team success and program alignment. While managers often carry the official designation, connectors earn their role on the team through trust. The connector and the manager are uniquely positioned to help team members process, overcome, and ultimately, achieve alignment as a team. 

Are You the Connector or Manager?

When I found myself acting as the connector for my team, it caught me off guard as I was never formally asked to play that role. Connectors are rarely officially designated. If you find yourself informally guiding and mentoring people outside of your own project team, you may be the trusted teammate connecting and caring for the program at large. Comfort and confidence in the connector role comes from recognizing the bounds of your influence and realizing that the best tool in your toolkit is listening and asking questions to help individuals seek the clarity they need. Team members may be used to their manager giving instructions, tasks, and next steps, but they will seek out the connector when they need advice and encouragement.

Taking a Closer Look at Your Team

As you reflect on your role as a leader, we challenge you to intentionally reflect on the following questions daily: 

  • Did I demonstrate empathy?

  • Did I foster trust with my team? 

  • Did I provide psychological safety while demonstrating vulnerability? 

If you work on a virtual or hybrid team, consider the following:

  • Did I hear any needs or questions that went unanswered?

  • Did I leave space for processing and consuming information?

  • Did I model open sharing? 

Taking Your Team Dynamics to the Next Level

While these practices may not always be easy, they are proven tools for cultivating productivity and trust on your team. Achieving success and alignment for a program alone is full of challenges, however, equipping your team members with a manager and a connector creates a sustainable environment that enables individual, group, project, and client success.

Want to know more about how Credera could partner with you to build team connection and unlock success in your programs and projects? Reach out to us at findoutmore@credera.com to start a conversation.

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