Create a Better Normal through Connectional Intelligence

By Association Adviser staff • June 15, 2021

As the world opens back up and people settle into familiar pre-pandemic routines, one question that is on the minds of many association professionals is: How do we create a better normal?

Erica Dhawan
Erica Dhawan

Erica Dhawan, an author, entrepreneur and keynote speaker at ASAE’s Marketing, Membership, & Communications Conference, noted that working remotely led many associations to small and large discoveries: That people could work from home and be productive; that teams could still collaborate across geographic distance; and that associations could still nurture member relationships and provide a worthwhile member experience.

Leaning in to digital and video-based communications hasn’t happened seamlessly, however. When three-fourths of face-to-face collaboration is non-verbal and you lose that face-to-face connection, communicating well becomes harder. We misunderstand more quickly. We speak more carelessly. We argue more. We more readily walk away from each other. There’s a cost to these misunderstandings in terms of impact on our growth, reputation and membership, Dhawan noted.

But there are bright spots in the way associations and their stakeholders have adapted communications and work in the past 18 months. We’re better at using technology to communicate. When it comes to hiring, we’re more geographically inclusive now. And with everyone forced to rely upon digital communication, accessibility for those with disabilities took the spotlight and made giant leaps in becoming, well, more accessible to more people.

We have seen more disruption and innovation in the business world in the last year than in the last 10 years. Digital tools that had little traction for years are now required for member retention, growth and interaction. How do we ensure we don’t go back to the old ways of our association operations, but instead, keep building on this moment of increased collaboration and trust?

Build Your Association’s Connectional Intelligence

Dhawan postulated that the answer is to keep building your association’s connectional intelligence – your capability to unlock new and unrealized value by fully maximizing the power of networks and relationships. Connectional intelligence isn’t about connecting more but connecting smartly.

What would happen, she asked, if we truly engaged with members on an issue instead of simply throwing more money at the issue or waiting for someone else to solve it? For example, instead of donating computers to students with limited educational resources and calling it a day, The Granny Cloud network of grandmothers with time to spare spends it tutoring low-income children in India via video chat. They directly engage and impact an issue important to them.

Another question to ask is, how is your association thinking about who can solve a problem? Good ideas can come from anyone at any level of your organization. Are you searching for solutions outside your normal problem-solving circles?

Dhawan gave the example of Colgate-Palmolive having trouble figuring out how to add a different kind of fluoride to their toothpaste products. It wasn’t until their team of chemists posted to an online community about the seemingly chemical-oriented problem that a physicist chimed in with a physics-based solution. Looking outside their usual circle of associates resulted in a solution within two days.

Value Your Human Capital’s Innovative Potential

How can your association think more innovatively about your human capital and not always ask the same five people for help? It takes practice maximizing and expanding knowledge from everyone in your community. Consider asking these questions:

  • Who are you partnering with? Shell, Apache and Marathon Oil started sharing large equipment and parts to save on costs and save materials. The partnership benefits all companies and the environment.
  • How can you learn from the youngest members of your team? Dhawan cited a law firm that noticed its younger associates were billing less hours than ever before but were as productive as ever. It turns out, they had created an ad hoc digital network to message each other questions about their cases and how to best handle them. They could find answers quickly for the benefit of the whole firm. How could your association leverage the power of peer groups to strengthen your programs?
  • How can you help build networks between organizational leaders? Some organizations use Task Rabbit to allow chapter leaders to post a task they need help with. Then other leaders with related experience reach out and help. This style of solution-finding networking breaks down member silos and lets members realize the full potential of their community.

Four Laws of Connectional Intelligence

Dhawan then offered four “laws” of connectional intelligence to follow at your association: visibly value people, communicate carefully, collaborate confidently and trust totally.

Value Visibly

Value your members’ and staff’s time. Start and end meetings on time. Run those meetings with a purpose and be present during them. It’s tempting to multitask with a screen in front of you, but don’t check email or work on other projects on the side. Open lines of communications outside of meetings, and send the agendas in advance. Allow people time to prepare, so they come to the meeting ready to contribute and make the time spent meeting worth it. Have some downtime between meetings. People need time to process what was said and what their next steps are.

Acknowledge that people learn differently and adapt to others’ learning styles as you can. You’ll get more results out of a team that is allowed to learn new skills their way than if you try to force them to adopt a skill your way.

Practice “radical recognition” of your team. Acknowledge good ideas. Smile when you praise them–a smile still comes across well on camera.

Acknowledge your digital natives vs digital adapters. “Natives” are those who prefer to communicate via informal mediums such as text or chat versus more live options such as phone calls or face-to-face meetings. They’re eager to use new channels. On the other hand, “adapters” are people who approach technology more reluctantly. They’re all about those calls and in-person meetings. They also prefer longer, higher quality communications vs. the shorter, more informal exchanges natives prefer.

Finally, keep in mind the differences between the communication styles of eastern vs. western cultures. Eastern cultures use title and surname. They include more background and context in their messaging and will often ask for a response to confirm the recipient saw their work-related requests. They ask about family in addition to work. Meanwhile, western cultures are more direct. They expect a recipient to have automatically read messages and be working on the next steps. In their mind, there’s no need for non-work-related messages.

Communicate Carefully

It’s worth repeating: Careful communication resolves many misunderstandings. Dhawan recommends thinking before you type and delivering a message with maniacal clarity. Spend the time to choose the right channel for your message. In some instances, a phone call is worth a thousand emails. Be aware of your digital body language. It’s how you present yourself online, and it matters. Address people by name, look at them and don’t interrupt.

Collaborate Confidently

Do what you say and mean what you say. Keep your word. Don’t say you’ll get back to someone soon and then take two weeks to deliver your answer. Don’t require a deliverable within a few days but then drag out the revisions or offer a review a week later.

Inform the right people at the right time. Don’t include everyone on a communication if It’s not necessary. Prioritize your communications and stick to that plan. Pay attention to details. Know which communication channels convey urgency or a response.

Trust Totally

Finally, give the benefit of the doubt to others. The lack of non-verbal communication over digital channels means your words and their tone could be interpreted much differently than you intend. It’s easy to misread between the lines in someone’s tone in an email or chat. Assume good intent, and ask for clarification if needed.

Create virtual water cooler moments to make up for the lack of an actual water cooler or break room for your team to have non-work conversations. These are the type of conversations that often create the “glue” that helps a team bond and work better together. Re-create the potential for that glue to take hold by checking in with your team at the beginning of meetings or creating reasons to hang out virtually without doing work.

Show your vulnerabilities sometimes. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. Show your team that is expected and okay.

Connectional Intelligence is Having a Moment

This is our moment to set new hybrid norms for how associations engage with members. Associations could eliminate excessive communication and instead drive powerful, exciting messages that show you value your members and their contributions. Connectional intelligence doesn’t require more budget, but instead more of our internal wisdom, thoughtfulness and creativity.

How could you use these tips to get bigger things done at your association? How will you connect intelligently for those counting on your wisdom, creativity and heart?


More Resources:

Sign up to download Erica Dhawan’s free Digital Body Language Toolkit at ericadhawan.com/dbl