Erica Dhawan is the world’s leading authority on 21st-century Collaboration and Connectional Intelligence. She is the co-author of the bestselling book “Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence”, which was named #1 on What Corporate America is Reading. Her much-anticipated follow-up title, coming out in 2021, is titled “Digital Body Language”, which decodes the new signals and cues of effective collaboration in a digital-first human workplace.
Erica was named by Thinkers50 as “The Oprah of Management Ideas”. She was ranked #1 on Women Keynote Speakers for 2020 by Real Leaders and was in the Top 10 Management Experts in 2020 by Global Gurus!
Erica speaks on global stages like The World Economic Forum at Davos and TED as well as to the biggest companies in the world. She writes for Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Fast Company. Erica has degrees from Harvard University, MIT Sloan, and The Wharton School. Erica challenges audiences and organizations to unlock the collective power of teams, business units, customers and other stakeholders both in person and virtually.
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Erica Dhawan: Connectional Intelligence Unlocks The Power of Collaboration With Teams And Customers
Joining me is Erica Dhawan, the world’s leading authority on 21st century collaboration and connectional intelligence. She’s the co-author of the bestselling book Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence, which was named number one on What Corporate America is Reading. Her much-anticipated book coming out in 2021 is titled Digital Body Language. Erica was named by Thinkers50 as the Oprah of Management Ideas. She was ranked number one on Women Keynote Speakers for 2020 by Real Leaders and was in the Top Ten Management Experts in 2020 by Global Gurus. She speaks on global stages like The World Economic Forum at Davos and TED as well as to the biggest companies in the world. Erica writes for Harvard Business Review, Forbes and Fast Company. She has degrees from Harvard University, MIT Sloan and The Wharton School. Erica challenges audiences and organizations to unlock the collective power of teams, business units, customers and other stakeholders. Please join me with Erica Dhawan.
Erica Dhawan, thank you for joining me on the show. How are you doing?
I’m great. I’m so excited to be here, Chris.
I am so excited to be here with you. I’ve been looking forward to this interview for a long time because this is the stuff I like. Many of my clients are asking for communication and connection. Being a communicator is important when you’re in sales, when you’re a leader, even when you’re on a team as a team member. Teamwork and leadership is all about everything that you’re talking about and that you’re an expert in. You coined something that I love which is connectional intelligence. Tell us a little bit about what that means.
My life’s work has been helping leaders and teams not connect more but connect intelligently in our 21st-century marketplace. We all know that we live in a world that is digitized. The last months have taught us that digital collaboration tools can connect even more across boundaries that we would never have imagined even in 2020. We also know that when we over-connect, we can create cultures of disengagement. We can create cultures of groupthink or what I like to call Zoomthink. We can reduce innovation and slow down high morale. What I’ve learned through my years of research is that the key leadership skill for the 21st century is not just having the knowledge IQ, not just being great in reading emotions in face-to-face traditional body language, which we all know of as emotional intelligence. It’s a third skill that I call connectional intelligence. What I define as connectional intelligence is being able to unlock new and unrealized value by truly using smarter ways of connecting, not more or harder ways of connecting.
I know you’ve done this at the highest level. You’ve worked with the biggest companies and organizations on the planet doing this. Before we get into what it is and what you’ve done with them, I want to understand how did you get into this field? I know you went to MIT. I know you went to Harvard so you’re pretty smart. That’s awesome right there. The resume can end and everybody’s going to love that. What did you do where you said to yourself, “I want to get into studying, analyzing and helping people with this?” What happened?It's not only what you do but how you do it that can lead to greatness or destruction. Click To Tweet
I grew up as the shy introverted girl in a conservative, suburban town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I grew up in a family of all Indian doctors that immigrated to the US so I’m the black sheep. That’s why I got all these degrees. Growing up, I never was able to find my voice. In school, I was the kid getting the A’s on tests but in every report card the teacher said, “I wish Erica spoke up more.” It gave me this struggle in speaking up and finding my voice, especially because my parents spoke Hindi at home. My English wasn’t perfect. I was toggled in between different cultures. I often found that one of my assets was reading people’s body language and studying not what they say but how they say it. It helped me build my knowledge set of what made someone popular, what allowed someone to display confidence. I got hooked in those early years on the power of nonverbal communication. It led to years going into work in Wall Street where I worked at Lehman Brothers in my twenties, pre-crisis.
During that time, I also realized that it’s not just what teams do. It’s how teams work that can lead to greatness or destruction. It was during that period when I worked on Wall Street that I realized that in nowadays world, we can’t rely on traditional soft skills. We have to think bigger and ask ourselves not what do we need to do and how do we get it done but how do we work across teams in new and different ways. That moment of working through the Lehman Brothers crisis propelled me. I went back, did graduate work and spent a series of years at Harvard and MIT asking myself and others around the world, team leaders, global companies, “How do we get big things done in a modern world? A world that is not just going to rely on being the extrovert, the person in face-to-face meetings, the person that has the best body language but in a world that is global, virtual, multi-generational, matrix, remote and beyond.” That led me to defining and codifying a new methodology that’s called connectional intelligence, helping leaders not adapt to the new normal but more importantly build a better normal that will last.
Your first book, Get Big Things Done, is all about this. Tell everybody a little bit about what you mean by get big things done. Do you mean companies that change the world and that are impacting everyone positively? Is that what you mean by that?
A big thing is a big thing that’s defined to anyone. A big thing for a working mom could be creating a working moms group network that saves hours of time every week with kids’ pickups. A big thing could be discovering a new innovation, reducing duplicative work across team’s silos, saving hundreds of hours of work and leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. I like to say a big thing is custom to you. My book starts with this idea of, “What do you care about? Who else can help you achieve this goal? Reimagining how you can connect with others.” I like to share a short story that will put it into practice.
A few years ago there was a team at Colgate-Palmolive, a toothpaste company. It was a team of chemists that were working on developing a new fluoride that they were meshing in their toothpaste. There was a mechanical flow problem and the fluoride was getting stuck in the equipment and it wasn’t meshing well. All the best chemists internally were trying to figure out why. No one could figure it out. It was taking months and months of time. When team members said, “Why don’t we ask a different group of people?” He ended up posting this problem on a community website of scientists. Within two days, a physicist looked at the problem online and told the Colgate team, “It’s not a chemistry problem. It’s a physics problem. It’s about charge particles,” ended up solving the problem within hours after that.
Colgate’s team realized a few things from the story. The first thing they realized is they didn’t even dare to ask the physicist at their own company because they labeled it as a chemistry problem. The second thing they realized is that physicist that solve the problem would have never been hired by Colgate because he didn’t want to work at a big company. In nowadays world, we can broaden the way that we solve problems. We can redesign our questions to say not just who are the five people we always go to for help based on their title, their role, hierarchy structures. Who can help? How can we design ways to allow those around the world with the power of our connectivity to bring the best solutions to us?
That goes to teams and the communication in a company where people are in silos. People are stuck in their own group and they don’t talk to the other silos, the other groups. They don’t know the feedback they would’ve gotten. You’re talking about open up your horizons and think about who you have under this roof as an organization or even in your community like the mom online with her own group. Who do you have that you’re already connected to or can easily be connected to that you can talk to? Is that what you’re talking about?
A lot of it is about stop looking up to your manager or down to your team members. Look sideways not within your own company but across companies. I have stories in my book where I talk about how competitors in the oil and gas industry partnered up to share resources especially with oil price massive changes over the last few years. I have stories of how companies in the financial services industries came together to reimagine how they recruit diverse talent to their industry. I have stories related to peer-to-peer networks of new employees that instead of doing traditional onboarding, training and then going into their silos, create peer-to-peer Facebook type of networks to help each other solve problems faster. That became a linchpin to help improve productivity digitally throughout their organization during the pandemic. It stems across the board. It’s about allowing us all to build the skill of connectional intelligence to more effectively leverage all of those around us.
How does a leader introduce the site? I think the leaders are still the ones that are going to have to introduce this idea to their teams and their organizations. How does a leader say, “There’s this thing called connectional intelligence. You should read Get Big Things Done. You should check out Erica Dhawan.” Besides that, how do they introduce this to their teams? Do they say, “I want to change some things around here. We’ve got to talk to each other more?” Is it as simple as that?
The best place to start when it comes to introducing connectional intelligence is to use it to reduce and kill needed bureaucracies in your organization. You live in a world, even during the pandemic, where we have too many bad meetings, Zoom included, too many emails, over communication on certain tools, under communication with certain silos, cross-team dysfunction and delays. We’ve all experienced these challenges. We’re experiencing the rise of Zoomthink or the groupthink that happens in Zoom and screen fatigue. The first place you can go is to not add more. Instead, kill the immediate wasted time that’s coming out of not using connectional intelligence but over connecting in unneeded ways.
I have a set in my keynotes and workshops. I talk about a set of best practices on how you can do that. One of them, for example, is through a story I talk about at Sprint where they created an initiative called Kill Stupid Meetings where they rated the quality of meetings and realized that a lot of 30-minute meetings could be 12-minute meetings. They could have three in that block instead of having 30-person meetings. They started to have at least eight-person meetings. Usually, the other twenty people could listen to a recording, could read an email summary, share their thoughts and weren’t direct decision-makers in the meeting. There was a culture of fear or guilt that was wasting a lot of people’s time. Another thing that came out of it was virtual office hours where instead of people booking 30 minutes for a 5-minute question, what you could do is have office hours every day, 10:00 AM to 11:00 AM where anyone can ping you around anything. It was transforming the culture and creating that water cooler environment whether you’re in the office, which is not in 2020 or working wherever you are. That’s one example.
Another example I’ll share is with Merck where we created email acronyms. An example is to speed up and improve communication because there’s a lot of lack of clarity with a lack of tone in email. One of them was NNTR, which meant No Need To Respond. That simple acronym reduced a lot of the unneeded responses of, “Okay. Thank you.” Another one was creating response time expectations. 2D means, “I need to send two days.” People know they don’t have to rush and not think thoughtfully about something. They can be thoughtful and take time versus 4H which means, “I need this in four hours.” Some of these simple things can transform 21st-century teamwork. We all know that the work starts in reducing the poor connection so that then we can get to connectional intelligence.
I want to hear about the latest book. I want to talk about the stuff that you’ve been talking about for years as a thought leader and a speaker is pushed to the forefront, maybe more than ever in your career during COVID. I love making this comment that I’m going to say, once the pandemic is over, we’re back to a new normal, people are back in the office and things are more the way they used to be, which will eventually happen. I feel like the one good thing that came out of this for the virtual life that we’re living is it made it okay. It made it something that wasn’t scary anymore. I remember years ago on the phone, I was a salesman and I was like, “One day, we’re going to be able to show the product on the phone. Everyone’s going to see us. We’re going to have to dress up every day. We’re going to be on the phone.” It never happened.
I use Zoom for the first time when I did this show. I had set up calls for the speakers to speak to the clients on Zoom. I’m like, “What Zoom? It’s a phone call.” People started gradually saying, “I want to see you. I would like to see you.” I started saying to people, “Do you want it?” Since I did the show, people are saying, “I would like to see you.” I’ve got Zoom on my phone and I can do it from home. It’s interesting how people had to learn the technology and accept that it’s okay. They’re not afraid of it. They don’t hate it. Some people still hate it but I think it’s going to continue to be a new way to do meetings and communicate with each other better. Would you say that it’s going to improve everything even after the pandemic is over?Don’t just adapt to the new normal; build a better normal that will last. Click To Tweet
I think that the power of digital tools whether it be video on Zoom, Webex or informal chat tools like Slack and others, are great ways to engage and connect if used intelligently. In certain cases, we’re using them well and in other cases, we have an opportunity to improve. This moment in time is a great way to reassess where we’ve come in digital tools that have sped up use but also where we can go and how we can use this moment not just to go back to the office in a year and revert back to old behaviors. We had bad meetings. We had poor email communication. To use this moment to transform, to build our capability and connectional intelligence so that we’re not going back to work, we’re going forward.
In a lot of my keynotes, I talk about, “How do you use connectional intelligence and all the different collaboration tools?” I talk about video meetings. I talk about, “How do you connect intelligently with introverts and extroverts?” For example, introverts don’t always love being on video. It’s not natural to look at yourself on the screen but they love often the virtual chat tool. They’re often strong writers and they like to share out their opinions. They love emails so they can share deeper thoughts versus having to speak up or overtalk in a group meeting. They love having questions or agenda sent 48 hours in advance so they can think through ideas.
Sometimes Zoom meetings or email communication can create a lot of groupthink. If you ask, “Does everyone agree?” The first three people agree. It’s much harder for that fourth person to say no but when we were face-to-face in a room together, we could read the body language. We knew if someone was rolling their eyes. We knew if someone was disengaged and looking at their phone. We can see some of those cues. The reality is we’re only seeing about 5% of traditional body language cues in video because we have no body gestures. We are primarily only seeing the face. We are dealing with screen freezes and echoes, also the fact that we’re looking at our face versus others and we have no direct eye contact. These are some of the challenges we face that I talk about in my keynotes.
What I focus on is how do we address that? How do we connect intelligently, no matter the person, no matter the style? I talk about introverts versus extroverts and what they need. As a salesperson or as a leader, how do you engage those with different styles and ensure everyone can find their voice regardless of the media, email, video? I am. You name it. Also, how can we engage those with different styles? I call them digital natives and digital adapters. Digital natives are those that are comfortable in digital tools, Zoom, Slack. You name it. Digital adapters are those I describe that feel like working remotely has been learning a new language. They feel like immigrants to a new world. It’s also important as leaders to understand how you do engage both of these styles. I’ve seen digital natives teach adapters how to use different tools, how to use the virtual whiteboards.
Sometimes, adapters are teaching natives how to make sure they have the right virtual background and stay professional in customer meetings. It is the power of this collective experience. I also talk a lot for those that are thinking a lot about diversity and inclusion. How do you use connectional intelligence to foster a culture of inclusion, belonging and allyship? How do you also use it in different mediums in that way to create spaces for everyone to speak up? A lot of that is making sure you acknowledge your own bias of your own digital styles so that everyone can engage. Also, if you have a global team, I share some of the best practices across different cultures as well. Eastern cultures tend to communicate differently digitally than Western cultures.
I’m surprised to hear that Zoom could make things worse in the meetings. In other words, with the same team that used to meet in person, Zoom is not as good. I get that. I feel like Zoom can bring a lot of people together across the country or across cities that may not have been able to get together. Isn’t that a good thing better than them having a phone call, conference call? It’s got to be better than that. Tell us a little bit more about how the Zoom meeting can be bad. You’ve touched on it a little bit but go a little bit deeper if you could about how to avoid having these Zoom meetings be bad.
I think that Zoom can be better than face-to-face meetings when you use connectional intelligence. Let me start there. Let’s talk about the power of the video meeting. We can include people that were traditionally in that face-to-face meeting. In our new normal, we will have people in the face-to-face meeting and on video in the future. We can avoid turn-taking. We can use the virtual chat tool. Instead of the people over-talking one another or often getting the extroverts, the most senior people or the loudest person speaking up. Everyone can share their ideas in real-time. The meeting host can use the power of that to call on people who have the most different or diverse ideas. Research shows that the first three people that speak up in a meeting, whether face-to-face or online, guide the rest of the meeting.
How are we going to get innovative ideas? How are we going to make sure we create cultures of psychological safety? In true teamwork, we’re going to design our meetings to be truly inclusive. Whether it’s Zoom, Webex, whatever your company or your organization uses, we can do that by being more inclusive than we were in the room. We’re also not relying on the visual biases. I’ll give you a story pre-pandemic. I was on a call where there were three of us that were on the conference call and three people that were in the live meeting in an office. It was a 30-minute meeting. It wasn’t until the 26th minute of the meeting that the team members in the room said, “Does anyone on the phone have a thought?” We have a visual bias where we pay more attention to people we can see face-to-face than we can see virtually or not at all when people were on conference calls.
There are many nuances of the power of video meetings that will reduce bias that will create inclusivity when used appropriately. The other side to it is making sure that we’re using connectional intelligence as a meeting host. A lot of that has to do with making sure that we’re not creating Zoom fatigue, having everyone constantly on video six hours a day if you can do your video meetings before 2:00 PM because there is real screen fatigue. Another thing that is important is to make sure you’re designing that way for engagement. Whether it’s having everyone share the virtual chat tool, using breakout rooms, creating nuances so that introverts can speak up just as much as extroverts, having set times for people to speak so there are not certain people taking up all the airtime. Those are nuances in the practice of leading with connectional intelligence that will make your Zoom meetings effective versus ineffective as well.
What’s your latest book about? You have a book that’s not out yet. It’s coming out in May of 2021. It’s something to look forward to. Is it finished?
My book is finished. It’s called Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust & Connection No Matter the Distance. I’ve been working on it for a few years. It feels like the timing was right. The book is done. I’m sharing all the content early with my keynote and workshop clients before the book comes out. We all know that we’ve dealt with those ambiguous text messages, the video chats where it’s back and forth, “You go. You’re on mute.” We lose the creative flow and the concentration. We’ve all had terrible phone conversations where we can’t read the tone of a message. We ruminate. We have paranoia. We’re anxious. We misunderstand one another. My book Digital Body Language and my keynotes on the skills of Digital Body Language are all about helping anyone and everyone build trust and connection in our new normal.
The key message is that distance doesn’t matter. The key thing that I’ve seen in the data is that virtual teams, virtual work can outperform face-to-face in co-located teams. The question is not whether or not we’re distant, it’s how do we build trust no matter the distance? What was implicit in traditional body language is the handshake, the head nod, the direct eye contact, the lean in and the sales conversation. It has to be explicit in what I call digital body language. Every single day we’re sending digital body language signals even if we don’t intend to from the subject line we use, to the choice of medium tool we use, to the punctuation we use in our messages, to whether we use emojis or not, to how quickly we respond to messages, to our video styles. It’s not just a Zoom body language. It extends much farther than that.
What my book focuses on is helping you to understand what your digital body language style is. What are signals you’re sending even if you don’t intend to? How do you best engage with those that are different than you? Most importantly, how do you build cultures of true collaboration, teamwork and innovation regardless of distance? That’s what the book is about. I have lots of best practices I can share but I’ll stop here to see what questions are on your mind.
Isn’t it overly nice and as nice as possible and think about, is anybody going to be offended by this? Is this going to come off as me being too harsh? Is this going to come off as me being too demanding? Also, on the flip side when you’re reading what people are sending to you, isn’t it just don’t take anything personally? Aren’t those two good rules of thumb?Distance doesn't matter. The question is not whether or not we're distant. It's how do we build trust? Click To Tweet
I think that assuming the best intent or positive intent is a backbone of good leaders. What my book and newest keynotes do is take that a step further. I codify what are the new cues of listening in a digital world, the new cues of listening or reading messages carefully. I’ll give you a story of a client of mine. He sent a text message to his boss, Tom, that said, “Do you want to speak Wednesday or Thursday?” Tom’s response was yes. While that may seem trivial, valuing people is valuing their time, valuing their inboxes, valuing their calendars. Listening is reading messages carefully. Empathy today is writing clearly. A phone call or a video call is worth 1,000 emails. Allowing us all to reimagine how we upgrade our skills that were built into our backbone in traditional body language, which I had to learn as the shy introverted girl to what I saw is that people don’t need traditional body language skills. They need digital body language skills. I saw this as important pre-pandemic but it’s even more relevant not just for the remote worker, for the doctor having to do telehealth with patients, for the professor having to do online learning, for the association leader having to reimagine virtual events and beyond.
I think a new world has emerged with the technologies that are out and with Zoom. The pandemic caused it all to come into our lives much quicker than it would have. What are you most excited about? What do you think is going to be something that’s good for business that you’re excited about and that you’re going to tell people all about that they need to take advantage of it?
One thing that I’m so excited about, and we’ll engage all the meeting planners and event planners reading, is the immense power of the virtual event and what we’ve learned over the last months about the beauty and inclusiveness of what we can do. We all can’t wait to go back to live events. I’m doing my first socially distanced live keynote and I can’t wait. Also the power of who else can we include? How can we have webcasts at the feature of conferences so that anyone across the world can engage with us? How can we use the power of what we learned from the virtual chat tool to have a real-time feed while keynoters are speaking? One of the things I’d love to do is I have multiple screens in my virtual studio. I’m constantly giving shout-outs and sharing back what people are saying about the content that I’m sharing in real-time that I wasn’t doing in person before.
We can also engage in a lot more unique ways whether it’s breakout rooms. Those small groups can come together. Those random interactions can speed up the random groups coming together virtually. Also, one of the things that I’m excited about is in a lot of my keynotes we’ve been doing, I’ll call it digital body language improv where we bring up certain people to come on whether it’s on Zoom or other virtual video tools with me to do live demos. For salespeople, we’ve done demos. We talk about how great it is to bring a surprise guest in for five minutes as a salesperson to sales meetings and how you engage them. As a meeting planner, how you can reimagine how attendees can be part of interactive experiences virtually that we never would have imagined before. That’s one thing I’m excited about. You can tell I love virtually speaking. I love speaking in general but I’m excited about the future of innovation for this industry.
Is connectional intelligence something that is catching on and you’re seeing a lot of examples of it maybe from you because they’ve learned it from you, or you’re seeing it randomly happen in our society a little bit? Is it something that is going to continue to happen and you’re going to be the spokesperson for it?
I think that constraints drive innovation as we all know. I think the constraints we’ve all been under. I want to echo, I feel for everyone out there that’s gone through so much. I do feel that we have this unique moment. We’ve seen so much disruption but also so much innovation in the last months around connectional intelligence. We’re not relying on the two people that were next to us in an office. We have as leaders to give up power and truly empower our teams. We have to try digital tools that we never would have focused on and we often ignored in the past. We have this unique opportunity to not revert back to old norms but to use connectional intelligence, to connect not more but more intelligently in ways that will allow all of us to move forward.
I hope that I can be a champion of these skills but more importantly, enable everyone and anyone to be able to use them to get the big things done that matter in their life whatever that may be. Chris, I have a gift for your whole community. I have a Digital Body Language Toolkit that is available if you go to EricaDhawan.com/dbl. It’s a Digital Body Language Style Toolkit that will give you best practices on how to engage well in video meetings, phone meetings, email and texts. You name it. It’s cool that you can share with your teams to optimize collaboration in our changing world.
Thank you, Erica. This was awesome. There’s so much great information in here. I’m definitely going to have to reread this one monthly because this information is valuable. I can’t wait to read your latest book coming out in May 2021. We’ll all be looking forward to that. Thank you for the gift that you’re giving to anybody who’s reading this. That is awesome to have that reference point. What you’re doing and talking about these days is important to the world we’re living in more than ever. It was perfect timing. It was wonderful to have you on the show. Thanks for coming on with me.
I’ll talk to you soon.
- Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence
- Digital Body Language
- Erica Dhawan
About Erica Dhawan
Erica Dhawan is the world’s leading authority on Connectional Intelligence.
Through speaking, training and consulting, she teaches business leaders innovative strategies that increase value for clients, delivers results and ensure competitiveness.
She is the co-author of the bestselling book Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence. Erica was named by Thinkers50 as “The Oprah of Management Ideas” and featured as one of the emerging management thinkers most likely to shape the future of business. She hosts the award-winning podcast Masters of Leadership.
Erica speaks on global stages ranging from the World Economic Forum at Davos to companies such as Fedex, Pepsico, and McGraw Hill Financial. Erica writes for Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company and the Huffington Post.
Erica also serves as a board member to Lufthansa Innovation Hub. Previously, she worked at Lehman Brothers and Barclays Capital. She has a MPA from Harvard University, a MBA from MIT Sloan, and a BS in Economics from The Wharton School.
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