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Dr. Carole Robin: How Leaders Can Build Meaningful Connections

01 Jun 2021
CEO Perspectives: Dr. Carole Robin on How Leaders Can Build Meaningful Connections

Perhaps no skill is more critical than the personal relationship and communication skills that can make or break a business, especially coming from CEOs. But given the importance of these skills, it’s ironic how little time organizations spend studying them.

We recently invited Dr. Carole Robin to meet with a group of our CapitalG portfolio founders from Collibra, Dataiku, Everlaw, Next Insurance, Notarize, Orca Security, Unqork and more to discuss the value of building and maintaining these connections.

Dr. Robin is a professional relationship researcher, former faculty director of Stanford Graduate School’s legendary “Interpersonal Dynamics” course, and co-author of the book Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues.

Here are a few excerpts and takeaways from Dr. Robin’s lively Q&A with our founders.

Practice self-disclosure and aim for appropriate authenticity

In order to deepen a relationship, as a leader you have to allow yourself to be more known. Dr Robin explained why, also touching on the cost of non-disclosure:

“Self-disclosure creates more opportunities for connection, and actually builds trust. In the absence of data, if you want to make sense of what’s going on with me, you’ll fill in the blanks. And you will fill them in with stuff that is not necessarily true. So I’m better off and have more control over my self-definition if I tell you more than leave it up to you.”

Dr. Robin also explained that leaders who are willing to be vulnerable create higher-performing organizations — as long as they’re not vulnerable about their core competencies.

“If I’m the VP of marketing and I say, “Well, this is the third month in a row we lost market share. I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do, I probably shouldn’t have this job!” — that might be authentic — but it’s not appropriate.”

But using alternative framing can help you gain support and collaboration.

“If I say, ‘We’ve lost market share, and I’ve never needed you all more because I don’t have all the answers,’ that is authentic, and vulnerable, and appropriate for work. Such a response is likely to gain support and collaboration.”

Apply curiosity and a learning mindset

There’s something magical about really being curious, Dr. Robin said, and being on the receiving end of somebody who’s really curious about you.

Curiosity is impossible unless you suspend judgment. You don’t get to know somebody else by giving them advice. It might seem efficient to quickly turn a conversation to advising, but the root of the word “inquiry” is “quest” — meaning you don’t know what you’re going to find.”

Dr. Robin noted the challenge in maintaining curiosity for entrepreneurs:

“One of the reasons entrepreneurs are very successful is that we’re pretty good at judging, and judging quickly.” But when it comes to becoming more connected, we have to suspend that judgment.”

Go beyond surface conversations by asking open-ended questions

Connecting is not just “sharing” — instead, it’s inviting others to share, as Dr. Robin observed:

“One of the ways to invite others to share is to go first, because vulnerability and disclosure are reciprocal. When you are in a position of power, as company leaders are, it is much more important for you to go first. Why? Because asking somebody lower in the power structure to take a risk and be vulnerable by going first is a big ask.”

As a leader, if you want your peers and team members to open up to you, you might start by opening up to them to some degree. This does not require full disclosure, only a bit of candor and sense of your humanity. Open-ended questions start with ‘where’, ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘when, and they tend to invite people to open up and say more than yes/no questions do, Dr. Robin said. Similarly, ‘why’ questions can often feel a little intrusive or judgmental.

“Asking ‘Why did you do that, why do you think that?’ is almost an implicit request for justification. To help someone stay connected to their feelings, don’t ask “why” questions. They drive others into their head to justify “why” instead of exploring “how” or “what” from your heart.”

Don’t put off addressing irritations in a relationship

No matter how close a relationship is, sooner or later the other person does something that at the very least annoys you a little bit. When we’re annoyed, our first thought is “I don’t want the other person to think that I’m thin-skinned, it’s really not that big a deal.” And sometimes it’s not. But Dr. Robin explained why that ‘pinch’ is usually worth checking.

“If I’m doing something that’s mildly irritating and you don’t tell me, I’m going to keep doing it. And that will probably irritate you a little more every time I do it. You’re better off addressing these moments when they just pinch a bit, especially if that has happened a few times, instead of letting them get even bigger.

This is where being in touch with your emotions is really important — they are a cue as to whether or not to raise the issue. If you’re mildly irritated and it goes away and that’s it, that’s the only time it happens, no big deal. But if you can sense that you’re getting a little more agitated every time this happens, maybe it’s time to raise it.”

Effective feedback is useful data

When you address that irritation, don’t forget to include your intent. As Dr. Robin described such a situation:

“If you say ‘I feel disappointed when you do X’, it might feel crummy to hear that you feel disappointed, but you are telling me because you really care about our relationship and don’t want to be disappointed.”

To make sure that feedback is productive, Dr. Robin offered an alternative way to frame this.

“You might say, ‘I’m telling you this because I think you’ve got great potential and I am invested in you, and I’m worried that if I am disappointed, I will be more reluctant to give you challenging assignments.’ That feedback is likely to be more productive.”

Dr. Robin also said that if you build your skills in delivering feedback more effectively, you create stronger relationships because the recipient is likely to think, “When somebody gives me feedback, they’re showing me they care and telling me how I can improve.” In that way, feedback is data. Dr. Robin went on to explain the value of honest feedback:

“More data is always better than less data, so it’s always a gift. Sometimes it comes wrapped in a really ugly wrapping and it’s really hard to tell there’s a gift in there. But if I see a piece of feedback as data, that’s a gift. My first response to feedback will always be ‘Thank you’ when receiving it.

And the first thing that I think when I give it to you is, ‘I’m giving you a gift. I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t care.’ In doing it this way, we’re going to move towards a way that’s more likely to be productive, moving in the direction of problem solving and towards a relationship that’s robust and functional.

A huge thank you to Dr. Carole Robin for joining our CEO series discussion with our portfolio founders.

If you’re interested in more research-backed insights and relationship strategies from Carole, click here to check out her book “Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues” on Amazon.

Click here for more growth insights from CapitalG.

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