Are relationships making or breaking you?

At the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament in 1999, 16-year-old Jelena Dokic achieved one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, beating women’s world No. 1 Martina Hingis 6–2, 6–0. This remains the only time the women’s world No. 1 has ever lost to a qualifier at Wimbledon and Dokic went on to reach the quarterfinals of the competition – only her second Grand Slam tournament.

I was fortunate to hear Jalena speak at a breakfast event last week about Women in Sport. Following her Wimbledon breakthrough, she rapidly climbed through the world rankings, but her time in the world elite was marred by struggles in her relationship with her father and coach Damir.

At the breakfast, Jalena shared numerous stories with us of the impact her relationship with her Father had in undermining her self-confidence and belief, but at the same time driving her to work harder to try and win his approval. Her 2017 autobiography Unbreakable covers the full extent of struggle that she experienced, but the over-riding message when she spoke was one of hope – we are stronger than we think we are and we can choose to live life in the way that we want.

The key message that Jalena’s story reinforced for me is that relationships can make and break us.  And that’s not surprising. We are innately social because our brains are hard-wired for social connection.

Relationships – a basic need
Neuroscientists have discovered that a large part of the brain’s processing capacity is dedicated to social matters such as how you understand and connect to others and how you understand and control yourself in social situations. Some scientists believe that social needs are so rooted in our survival instincts, that the brain sees them as essential as food and water. Many studies show that the brain uses the same networks to process social needs as for basic survival – being hungry and being socially isolated activate similar threat and pain responses. Feelings of relatedness is a primary reward for the brain and an absence of relatedness a primary threat.

Social needs are rooted in our survival instincts.
To the brain, social connection is as essential as food and water and it activates
similar threat and pain responses when it is absent.

 Mirror Mirror…
Our brains create feelings of connectedness through processing information from others as if we are having the same experience.  Discovered in 1995 by Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, mirror neurons light up in our brain when we see other people do ‘intentional action’. So for example, if you see someone pick up a glass, mirror neurons light up in your brain, and these same neurons light up when you pick up a glass yourself. Random acts do not have the same effect. Neuroscientists think this is because the purpose of mirror neurons is to help us understand other people’s intent – their goals and objective – to help us feel connected to them.  And this works with emotions too.

Mirror neuron information is transmitted to the insula – the emotional centre of the brain, so you also share the emotions of the person you are with. This is how ‘emotional contagion’ occurs, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on what’s being ‘transmitted’ (we’ve all been in meetings that have spiralled down into a pit of despair triggered by just one or two people!). It’s also why it’s so important that leaders are self-aware and manage their emotions constructively.

Face to face interactions help mirror neurons do their work – the more social cues are absent, the more risk there is of misreading intent and not connecting with other people’s emotional states.

Emotions spread through groups of people via mirror neurons in our brains which is why
it’s so important that
leaders are self-aware and manage their emotions constructively.


Feeling good, functioning well
Good relationships also make us feel good and perform well. This is because each time you genuinely connect with another person, the pleasure-inducing hormone oxytocin is released into your bloodstream reducing anxiety and stress and improving concentration and focus. This explains why employee satisfaction, productivity and retention is higher when they report that their immediate boss cares about them. Beyond the workplace, there’s also evidence that strong relationships reduce depression increasing subjective wellbeing, providing more meaning in life, improve cardiovascular and immune functioning and support positive health behaviours, such as good diet and exercise habits.

What can leaders do to create and encourage positive relationships?

Research at the University of Michigan by Jane Dutton and her colleagues found that managers can strengthen relationships by creating and encouraging High-Quality Connections (HQCs) in their teams.

What is a High-Quality Connection?
HQCs have greater emotional carrying capacity. Team members feel safe to express both positive and negative emotions constructively and they engage in deep listening to understand each other’s perspectives and emotions.

These types of connection are resilient, with the capacity to bounce back after setbacks. They generate new ideas, maintain openness and deflect behaviours that block generativity. The energy in an HQC is buoyant through a sense of shared possibilities and creativity.

In HQCs people feel respected, trusted and encouraged and because of this, they have greater psychological, social and physical resources.

How can you create High-Quality Connections?
Dutton and her colleagues suggest we develop HQCs by paying full attention, listening and communicating clearly, and providing encouragement and support.

Here are three ways you can bring this to life in your leadership:

Ask direct questions
Whilst the mirror neurons in our brain may be working hard to try and understand another person’s intent, the best way to understand what’s on another person’s mind is to ask them directly. Undoubtedly seeing things from another’s point of view has merit, however, it doesn’t necessarily give you more accuracy in understanding what’s on that person’s mind. Nor does reading body language, as a body can mislead just as easily as it can lead you correctly.

So, to really understand someone’s thoughts, feelings and actions in a situation, asking them direct questions about what’s on their mind from a basis of connection and kindness, may well give you the information that you need.

Listen well
It’s one thing to ask a direct question; it’s another to really listen to the answer. Oscar Trimboli talks about the power of deep listening in creating a context where people feel that you’ve really understood what they have to say.  One approach to try is the speaker-listener technique. Start by asking a question, then let the other person respond without interruption. Once they’ve replied, repeat back to them what they said to you, including what feelings were expressed so that they can confirm or explain further. In this way, they’ll know that they’ve been heard, and you’ll know that you’ve understood them correctly.

Express Gratitude
The evidence supporting the positive impact of expressing gratitude to strengthen relationships in the workplace is compelling.  Unfortunately, research also suggests that one of the barriers of expressing gratitude – particularly in written form – is that we misunderstand or underestimate the positive impacts and overestimate the risk that a recipient may feel awkward. Understand that expressing gratitude goes a long way to creating HQCs. Knowing the benefits that come from this, you may feel more comfortable showing your appreciation at work.

Want to learn more about positive leadership?
Click here to find out more about Paige’s Leading Well Program.

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders leverage their leadership to lead teams that deliver and create culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.