The Flipside

Three Ways to Rebuild Lost Leader Bridging Connections

According to recent articles on the HR Exchange Network website by Michael Arena, the former Vice President of Talent Management & Development at Amazon Web Services (AWS), research has shown that though ‘Bonding Connections’ held up pretty well through the pandemic and the ongoing transition to more permanent hybrid work, ‘bridging connections’ have nose-dived.  For those unaware, people ‘Bonding connections’ between a leader and their team matter because without them, teams can’t stay aligned much less agile and adaptable. Strong ‘Bridging Connections’ matter because without them there is less access to and the transfer of new ideas and diverse insights between people and teams. Of course, in order to be really successful individual contributors and leaders need both types of connections to be strong and highly engaged at work.

This loss of ‘Bridging Connections’ is even worse when looked at only through the lens of more senior managers and executives. As Arena wrote and my own personal experience can attest,  “Since working remotely, senior managers and executives have lost nearly three times the number of bridge connections as that of an average employee (3.5 times for executives and 2.7 times for senior managers).”  This matters because, as he went on to say, “Pre-pandemic, leaders represented nearly 50% of an organization’s bridging connections.” In my own case, even with a 28% increase in ‘influence potential’, over 50% of my bridging network disappeared in less than 3 years.

Snpp from Arena's research showing Pre-Pandemic on the left and the same network 6 months later.
Snpp from Arena’s research showing Pre-Pandemic on the left and the same network 6 months later.

What’s even more troubling in regards to declining ‘Bridging Connections’ is the impact that their loss is having on leader well-being. As Arena says, the loss of personal connections with peers has ”led to leaders becoming more chronically stressed, burned out, and exhausted”, not just because their jobs have become harder and more lonely than they usually are, ‘but also because they have become more separated and isolated from their own support networks.”

As a long-time networking maven, this news and the quantitative data supporting it is truly alarming. This is because healthy ‘Bridging Connections’ really matter. As Arena goes on to say, “These outward-looking ties, which connect teams to external ideas, insights, and resources, are necessary to facilitate learning and innovation, which allow an organization to move beyond the status quo. The potential long-term impact is therefore the crippling of future adaptations, innovations, and strategic alignment.”

Now before we all start yelling that the ‘Sky is Falling’, let’s remember that for the most part, leaders have really stepped up to the plate in paying attention to their bonding efforts – though perhaps more so in the early days of the pandemic than now. Most are more accessible, more authentic, more socially aware and engaged, take less time to connect with, and have provided far more options for interaction than ever before. There is far more ‘listening’ to employee, partner, and customer ecosystem concerns via Chat, teams spaces, ‘Town Halls’ and ‘All Hands’ meetings, podcasts, and other communications mechanisms. Most leaders are also far more attuned and empathetic than ever before to individual well-being, team burnout, employee hiring and retention challenges and most are actively engaged in Rewards and Recognition efforts of all kinds.

Arena’s answer to the ‘Bridging Connections’ conundrum is that HR needs to play a more active role in helping leaders become more connected. These include scheduling more face-to-face leadership re-connection sessions and ‘Best Practices’  or ‘Lessons Learned’ exchanges, coaching support,  encouragement to reactivate dormant bridge connections, and reminding leaders of the importance of having a diverse, broad-based network across the organization. Though these are all great ideas, I’m not sure that it’s enough to enable sustainable leaders unless these activities are operationalized in ways that drive more meaningful and impactful conversations within and across teams, peers, and individuals.

Here’s what I think would also help to enable more high-value conversations:

  • Build and Execute Bridge Connections Awareness and Assessment Workshops

In the same way that organizations are going all out to support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion awareness and training, the same thing needs to happen focused on building Bridge Connections Awareness and encouraging leaders to assess and create their own Bridge Connector Network Blueprint.  This can be done through peer and cross-functional peer workshops, instructor-led training sessions, and specific discussions at Town Halls or All Hands meetings. Sponsored by senior management and facilitated through HR, core objectives would be to:

  • Introduce the idea and importance of social capital
  • Conduct ‘AS-IS’ personal networks assessments and design ‘TO-BE’  Influence maps
  • Brainstorm ways to rebuild bridge connections capacity
  • Develop personal action plans and a cohort of peers or colleagues for results sharing and mutual coaching.

Institutionalize the Development of Formal, Transparent Team Purpose and Performance Dashboards

This topic I’ve talked about many times before though in slightly different ways. The end game has two key components that can be used to engage in conversations with others.  Firstly, is to have a short and sweet ‘one pager’ that can be shared with others that captures your team’s:

  • Purpose i.e. where we are going!
  • Strategy i.e. how we are going to get there!
  • Specific Execution Goals for agile strategy execution and lastly,
  • Guiding principles that support you and your team’s journey.

Secondly, is the creation of a performance dashboard that both cultivates actionable intelligence and enables a set of leading and lagging sensors (i.e. metrics) that transparently shares progress? Some teams and or leaders might need an orchestrator and/or some coaching to help you think through the details of both of these.  Having built dozens over the years, don’t be afraid to reach out if you need help.

Empowering an Attentive Leader Learning and Action Loop Through Coaching, Mentoring, and Orchestration Support

As shared in my January 2021, LinkedIn article Hybrid Remote Workforce Engagement Models Are Here to Stay! An ‘Attentive Leader’ has to learn how to model “transactional-to-transformational style shifting, support a test-deploy-retest-redeploy mentality, visible self-reflection, and team reflect-act-learn activities.” It includes a 3-phase process of:

  • AWARENESS of self, environment, team, and current leadership challenges by appreciating circumstantial ‘noise’ either imposed by the environment or oneself.
  • ACTION by paying attention to immediate real-time emoted behavior and how it may or may not be affecting individual and group trust (for both giving and receiving), and proactively shifting (called Attentive Shifting©) between circumstantially appropriate leadership styles and back again, as the situation requires.
  • REFLECTION that is deliberately practiced whereby teams stop, take a deep breath and ask themselves reflective, thought-provoking questions centered around what’s working and what’s not, what new skills or capabilities are needed and where do we go from here given current situational circumstances.

Proactively using any or all of these techniques can help leaders:

  • More proactively deal with chronic stress, and burnout by enabling more meaningful conversations.
  • Rebuild bridge connections that have been lost and create new ones with speed and alacrity in ways that add value to the business.
  • Improve their and their teams’ engagement levels, degree of strategic alignment, and ability to execute cross-functional strategic initiatives with agility and adaptability.
  • Support organizations in creating more sustainable leaders by strengthening group cohesion, stability, and innovation

As always, open to comments and suggestions, and here to help. I can be reached at [email protected].


  • Gaye Clemson

    Gaye Clemson is the founder and Managing Director of Globalinkage, a consultancy focused on using cross-functional team empowerment, Attentive Leadership© and Agile Strategy Execution operating models to enable effective transformational culture change. Having been around the Information Technology (IT) industry since the early 1980s, including 8 years at Tandem Computers during its formative years, Clemson has seen digital transformation and the people changes it brings ‘up close and personal’. As a thought leader on the people side of transformational and culture change, she speaks frequently at national and industry conferences including leading a Master Class in 2020 on a new leadership mindset for the Association of Strategic Planning. She is the published author of Agile Strategy Execution - Revolutionizing the HOW! (2016); Tandem Computers Unplugged - A People's History (2012) as well as multiple LinkedIn articles on a wide range of transformational change related topics. In her free time she researches and writes oral history narratives on the human history of Ontario, Canada’s world famous Algonquin Park. In this same vein, she has recently launched a new podcast entitled Algonquin Defining Moments.

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