Over-Connected and Under-Related: A Peril of Our Times

Months of social distancing and lockdown restrictions have made us acutely aware of the nature of our social connections. Although we are more digitally connected than ever, we are simultaneously living through an epidemic of loneliness. Global leadership development consultant, Steve Boehlke, believes that this paradox of being over-connected yet under-related is the peril of our times. He offers some important lessons on how to address this urgent dilemma.

Our experience of these pandemic days is profoundly affected by our ability to connect (or lack thereof). Lockdown restrictions and “quarantine in place” requirements test the durability of our social bonds. Many of us are confronted with threats of distance and isolation unfamiliar to us in this lifetime. Whether trying to stabilize a connection for our latest Zoom call or simply longing for a hug from a friend, most of us are more aware than ever of how we’re connected (or if we’re really connected at all).

“The strength and quality of your social connections and their arrangement profoundly affect your experience of the world, your emotions, and your personal and professional success,” writes Marissa King, professor of organizational behavior at Yale School of Management, in her newly published book, Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection. She challenges us to examine our assumptions about networking, highlighting the quality of relationships as more important than the quantity of our connections. Alarmingly, she cites research that “the biggest threat to middle-aged men’s health isn’t heart disease or obesity, but an epidemic of loneliness.” And this research was completed prior to the current global pandemic.

Human capital, at the risk of depersonalizing relationships further, is without question our most valuable and vital resource.

Zoom happy hours, WhatsApp groups and pandemic pods afford us some opportunities for nurturing and sustaining significant relationships. At the same time, many of us are accumulating more hours than ever of “screen time” — whether it’s a child signing in for another day of remote learning, a manager multi-tasking while lost in far too many open tabs, or weekends spent binging alone on another Netflix feature. The connections we have are diverse and varied, yet loneliness is pervasive.

Recent research by Harvard University notes that “young adults are hardest hit by loneliness during the pandemic.” Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) who helped lead the research, notes: “If you look at other studies on the elderly, their rates of loneliness are high, but they don’t seem to be as high as they are for young people.”

Leaders today, regardless of position or competing priorities, must address the paradox of burgeoning connection and rampant loneliness; it is becoming an urgent dilemma. Human capital, at the risk of depersonalizing relationships further, is without question our most valuable and vital resource. Being over-connected and under-related is the peril of our times.

Open up some time and space for one another rather than fill it up!

How do you assess the impact of your connections and the vitality of your relationships?

Consider the following indicators:

I am over-connected when…

  • A Google search is more accessible than my own mind
  • My networks are burgeoning, but my presence is diminishing
  • I can’t remember who that person is from Mumbai on my Facebook page
  • I surf the internet more often than getting lost in a good book
  • Collaboration is the path of least resistance
  • I am anxious but don’t know it because I keep busy “chatting” online
  • I must respond immediately to just one more text message
  • Zoom meetings, for which I do not know the desired outcomes, rule my schedule
  • I can’t remember when I was last caught in the act of thinking
  • The distinction between a connection and a relationship doesn’t matter to me

I am under-related when…

  • Most of my friends are people I’ve met but never seen
  • There’s no one I can call “just to talk”
  • I’m on a “need to know” basis with my colleagues
  • Candid, helpful feedback is rare
  • My phone is always on but all I get are text messages
  • No one understands my silence
  • The people that work with me don’t know what to call me
  • I travel great distances to find myself
  • More thoughts and ideas flood my mind than I know how to manage
  • Home is just an idea

If you relate to at least some of the experiences noted above, you are far from alone. As more and more of us habitually and perpetually experience virtual connectivity, the nature of our relationships is simultaneously shifting. Not everyone notices. Not everyone cares. The consequences, however, deeply affect the quality of our presence and the effectiveness of our engagement in the world, whether or not we notice.

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.

- R.D. Laing, Psychiatrist & Author

Awareness precedes choice. As our means and modes of connection proliferate, we must distinguish more than ever between a transaction facilitated by a touch screen and an interaction that has heart and soul as well as mind engaged. As noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, “One of the most finite resources in the world is attention.” The gift of presence, being fully and intentionally attentive, is more and more rare and thus more and more valuable. “The Net also ups the ante, increasing the relentless pressure to get some fraction of this limited resource. At the same time, it generates ever greater demands on each of us to pay what scarce attention we can to others.”

What to do? Pay attention to how you’re connected; become more aware of what you invest in relationships.

When was the last time you contacted someone not because you had a task for him or her to do or an agenda to work through but rather because you just wanted to “check in”? Open up some time and space for one another rather than fill it up!

How difficult is it for you to go off-line for a day, or even a few hours? Do you wonder why you would want to do that anyway? Try it and test how addicted you are to digital connectivity. Become more aware!

Choose to engage others in this conversation about the possibility or probability of being over-connected and under-related. Ask your partner or close friend to discuss some of the indicators cited above with you. Inventory for yourself the impact of your connections and the quality of your relationships.

Managing our health and well-being as a global community through this pandemic and beyond requires prudent attention to a great paradox of our time: we have more connections than ever, yet we are living through an epidemic of loneliness.

Not everyone is over-connected. And some load far too much onto too few relationships. Look out for Part II of this series: “Dealing with Networking Deficiencies: Under-Connected and Over-Related”.

Steve Boehlke

Founder and President of SFB Associates, a global leadership consulting practice, Steve Boehlke has 40 years of experience working with leaders around the world. As a leading voice in The Room, Steve’s gift for enabling people to develop leadership capabilities through a greater awareness of themselves and their world is unparalleled.

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