WorkLife with Adam Grant
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Vivek Murthy: My name is Vivek, and I am a physician by training, but most importantly, I'm a dad of two toddlers.

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When I was going through my residency training after medical school, we were told when we started the program that we should, in fact, call our family and close friends and tell them that they probably wouldn't be hearing from us for a long time. We were told that dealing with life-and-death situations, excruciating illness and incredibly delicate and difficult family circumstances would be incredibly taxing. And so with this warning in mind, I entered my residency training, expecting it to be an extraordinarily difficult three years. I was training with 70 some odd fellow recent graduates who came to work each day, almost without exception, with a mindset of how we could all help each other out. I came to work each day feeling like I was coming to work with friends.

Fast-forward just three years when I started a full-time job, that community broke apart and dispersed. And instead I was in the more sterile culture of traditional medicine with a group of people I didn't really know that well and a group of people who had lives well outside the hospital. And I remember going to work at times, feeling like there was so much to figure out and not always sure who I could be open with about the fact that I didn't know certain things or that I was uncertain about how to proceed with a patient. I wasn't sure that I could be vulnerable and open with people. And that felt quite lonely.

And I struggled with that until one particular moment a couple of years in, when I ended up sick, as I think I've ever been. And it was during those five days that I just realized how lonely the last couple of years had been. Our relationships are what catch us when we fall down, and I realized in that moment, lying on my couch, that I didn't have much of a net.

Adam Grant: A lot of us are feeling lonely these days. The details in Vivek Murthy's story might not be the same as yours, but you know what it's like to feel disconnected from your colleagues, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. As billions of people have had to embrace isolation, there's been a shared experience of loneliness at work. Even before this, though, many of us were feeling lonely more often and more intensely than in the past. Luckily, doing something about it takes less than you might think.

(WorkLife theme music)

AG: I'm Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I'm inviting myself inside the minds of some truly unusual people, because they mastered something I wish everyone knew about work. Today: loneliness at work. It can happen even if you're surrounded by people, but you don't have to fight it alone. Thanks to SAP for sponsoring this episode.

(WorkLife theme music)

VM: When we are lonely, we are actually in a physiological stress state. And when we're lonely for a prolonged period of time, that translates to a chronic stress state, which leads to higher levels of inflammation in the body, which, in turn, damage blood vessels and tissues and lead to a whole host of illnesses down the line.

AG: In 2014, Vivek Murthy was appointed US Surgeon General by President Obama. He spent a lot of time on all the things that keep Americans unwell — smoking, obesity, opioids — but he never forgot that profound experience of loneliness in his own work life. He began to observe that loneliness was often at the root of many health issues, and it alarmed him.

VM: And nobody came up to me and said, "Hi, my name is John. I'm lonely." But I found that once I surfaced it even just a little bit and asked this basic question: "Is loneliness a problem in your life, a problem for the people around you?" Then it was like the floodgates opened, and everyone had a story to share.

AG: As surgeon general, Vivek started looking into the data on the health implications of loneliness.

VM: If I were to tell you that the impact of loneliness on our lifespan is equivalent to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, it might surprise you.

AG: OK, so wait a minute, Vivek. Are you telling me that I'm better off smoking 15 cigarettes a day with a bunch of friends than quitting smoking and being lonely?

(Vivek laughs)

VM: Well, I certainly wouldn't endorse smoking in any context, but the key point here, though, is that we should think about loneliness as an important health threat, in the same way that we think about obesity or smoking or sedentary living.

AG: The social science on the health effects is really nuanced here. Loneliness is only one of the factors being measured, and we don't know that it's causal. But I was intrigued that this issue caught Vivek's attention as a medical expert.

VM: Once you become lonely, you enter into this downward spiral, where you start to turn further and further inward. You can actually become more difficult to be around, in fact, for others, and that can isolate you even further. And the real question then becomes: How do we break out of that negative downward spiral of loneliness?

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AG: In the US, even before the pandemic, three out of four people reported feeling lonely. And since we spend so much of our time on our jobs, work is one of the major sources of loneliness. You know what it feels like. Maybe you felt like there was no one you could talk to on an off day. You might've felt it when working remotely or when you switched to a new team, or when you ate a sad desk lunch alone for the 48th day in a row.

We're making fewer friends on the job than we used to. In 1985, half of people said they had a close friend at work. By 2004, less than a third did. This is not the case everywhere, though. In India, research shows that people go on vacation with nearly half of their closest colleagues. In the US, it's pretty rare for us to invite our coworkers over for dinner, much less take trips with them.

There are many possible reasons for this. One is the Protestant work ethic. Many Americans deprioritize relationships at work. We're focused on being productive and professional, leaving connections and emotions for outside of work.

VM: And that can make for a fairly isolating experience.

AG: We're also more mobile than we used to be. As we move to new jobs, new workplaces and new cities, we aren't investing in work relationships like we did in the past. A third factor might be technology.

VM: I don't think technology in and of itself is a bad thing, but I think the way many of us are using technology either isolates us from other people or reduces the quality of our interaction with people, either by distracting us or substituting lower-quality online connections for what used to be higher-quality offline connections. And I think that that comes at a real price.

AG: If you're like most people, you've probably felt a heightened sense of isolation from your colleagues or your clients. Maybe you've even found yourself missing your boss. Loneliness isn't just an unpleasant feeling. It's also bad for business. There's rigorous evidence showing that when people feel lonely at work, their job performance falters. In research at both a manufacturing company and a city government, when employees reported feeling lonely, they got lower performance ratings from their supervisors six weeks later. Why? When they felt lonely, they were less committed and less approachable. That meant other people were less likely to reach out and support them, which only compounded the problem.

Loneliness can affect a whole group of people at work. So the question is how to solve it collectively. When Vivek was surgeon general, he decided to tackle it in his own office. One of his first efforts was to try what everyone tries: picnics and happy hours. And the results were what they usually are.

VM: People end up talking about what they have most in common, which is work. So it can be helpful, but not nearly as helpful, I think, as we hope they can be. So what we did in contrast is, we decided after doing these to try something different.

AG: Wait a minute. So you killed happy hour?

VM: We didn't hear a single complaint, to be honest with you. (Laughs)

AG: You didn't have group of party animals working with you, apparently.

VM: What was interesting is, I think part of the reason we didn't hear complaints is because we had created other spaces and opportunities during the day for people to spend time together.

AG: If you've ever been to a happy hour that was more about drinking than bonding, this might sound familiar. Research suggests that company parties rarely build new bridges. People gravitate toward their existing friends and groups, leaving fault lines intact. And even if you overcome that barrier, happy hour is not set up for meaningful connection. Group conversations tend to stay shallow. What people need to defeat loneliness is a deeper connection. And that's more likely to come through talking one-on-one or through actually doing something together. For example, there's a digital marketing company, Bazaarvoice, that has an onboarding process lasting a few days. Newcomers get to know their colleagues through problem-solving activities that create connection, like scavenger hunts. And some companies help people find lunchtime buddies by using an app like one called Never Eat Alone. So managers need an assortment of strategies to encourage connection for different sorts of people, which is what Vivek tried next. He started small.

VM: If we had a half-hour break, sometimes we would just take a small group of people down to the gym downstairs, and we would just shoot hoops together and chat, you know, for 15, 20 minutes. So we tried to create opportunities during the day for people to socialize, but without spending necessarily a huge amount of time.

AG: Vivek also created something he called "inside scoop." The goal: help colleagues see the human behind the job instead of just "Jamie in communications" or "Cal in research."

VM: And what we did is we devoted five minutes once a week during our all-hands meetings, and we picked one person during each meeting and asked them to share pictures with us. And those pictures could be of anything they wanted, as long as it wasn't about their current job. And it was just show and tell. And people shared all kinds of interesting things.

AG: One woman who is very detail oriented in her memos had been seen as a little nerdy. She shared photos of herself training for a marathon. It turned out she'd qualified for the US Olympic team at one point. She saw herself as an athlete, not just a researcher, which was something her colleagues could then see as well. Another guy had served in the Marine Corps and came off a bit stoic. He shared photos of his mom and talked about how she was a source of strength when he was afraid he wouldn't survive a mission.

VM: And we heard that story and, my gosh, it just shifted how we saw him. Whole new dimension of this man, who we came to appreciate, and we saw him as a whole person.

AG: It might seem simple, but the value of seeing employees or coworkers as more than just their professional role is lost on a lot of workplaces. In Vivek's team, this exercise seemed to help people bring some of their personal lives to work.

VM: There was a greater sense of connection, and all it really took was five minutes once a week,

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AG: It was a step toward a less lonely work environment. What's your version of inside scoop? If you're in a tech company, it might be holding an annual "Bring your Parents to Work" day. If you're a manager, it might be telling your direct reports about your closest friend. If you're working remotely, it might be giving your colleagues a virtual tour of your home office. The US isn't the only country where government officials are worried about loneliness. There's one country that's taken a much bigger step.

Diana Barran: I am the Minister of Loneliness.

AG: "Minister of Loneliness." Is that a job at Hogwarts?

DB: Well, some people think that the Houses of Parliament are Hogwarts, but no, I've had more correspondence and more interest on this subject than anything else I'm responsible for.

AG: Diana Barran is a member of the House of Lords, which is a part of British Parliament. Loneliness is a big problem in the UK, even pre-Brexit. In one survey, up to a fifth of all UK adults felt lonely most or all of the time. So in 2018, Parliament created an official program to help check in on people who lacked strong social ties. And a number of big British companies signed a pledge to improve employees' connections. I chatted with Baroness Barran for a few minutes during the recent Brexit negotiations. And she told me that she herself felt lonely when she began her tenure in Parliament.

DB: You feel like you've arrived at this enormous school, where everyone else has 600 best friends, and you don't know anyone.

AG: We were all there at some point in high school, but loneliness can be just as difficult to deal with as we grow up, which is why it's important to talk about it.

DB: People are very reluctant to talk about loneliness because they feel it's a personal failure. I think pretty much everybody does feel lonely at work. I mean, I think the fact is that most people don't talk about it.

AG: She's been keeping track of a few workplace practices that have brought people together, too. Workplaces that, like Vivek with his photo-sharing, have created the conditions to help people connect more meaningfully.

DB: A number of employers have introduced what they call "chatty tables." So it means that if you sit at that table, expect to be spoken to.

AG: I have to say, I love the idea of a chatty table. It might be the most British thing I've ever heard.

DB: Well, we have one thing even more British, which is the "friendly bench."

AG: Oh, I've heard about that! Tell me more.

DB: So the friendly bench you would find in a park, and it's an outdoor version of a chatty table.

AG: I have to say, I don't think I'd want to sit on one of those benches. I prefer not to be approached.

DB: We should perhaps both try it and compare notes.

AG: These kinds of programs aren't enough by themselves to transform an organizational culture. But they can open a door and send a signal that it's OK to seek connection with your colleagues. Now, not everyone works on a team that prioritizes connection. Sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands.

Luz Claudio: Colleagues, I think, here ... the culture is more like people seem to want to be more separate, who is colleagues and who are friends. And so that feels a little bit isolating. My name is Dr. Luz Claudio. I'm an environmental health scientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

AG: And what in the world is an environmental health scientist?

LC: It's not like being in forest and counting animals. It's more about, we can protect people from environmental toxins. We talk a lot about data. (Laughs)

AG: You seem so sociable.

(Luz laughs)

AG: I would have thought you like people too much to do this kind of isolated, solitary work.

LC: Well, it is lonely work in a way, but also, because I am Puerto Rican, and as you grow in this field, because there's so few ... people of color in science, the higher you go up the academic ladder, the lonelier and lonelier it becomes, because you're one of the few people who are from that background.

AG: Luz grew up in Puerto Rico with a huge family around. She likes going places in groups and she loves salsa dancing.

LC: I love salsa music. My favorite thing to do outside of work is salsa. I try to engage with, you know, try to motivate people in my office. "Oh, there's a new restaurant nearby, you want to come check it out?" And every, every other week I would say, "I'm going to salsa dancing. Who's coming with me?" And still nobody did.

AG: Luz was starved for belonging, for a sense of connection with people she identified with. She realized that her New York colleagues weren't going to get as social as she wanted. She needed to do something to combat her loneliness. So she decided to build a workplace community from scratch. She started with interns.

LC: Yes, I was able to secure funding to bring in underrepresented minorities in science to work in our department. I tried to create a sense of community among them. Yesterday, I bought cupcakes after they had a lunch seminar. So we had a time together at the kitchen, talking about how they're feeling and how it's going for them in the internship program. So I try to bring them together as much as I can.

AG: When your organization lacks a sense of community or you feel out of place in the existing culture, you can build your own microcommunity. It's a group of people who understand you and share your interests. That could be people who go on runs before work, or it might be a book club or even a podcast club. That microcommunity could connect outside of work or during work hours. And as Luz found, it doesn't have to be a group of peers. Now she could connect and share her interest in Puerto Rican cultural events with others at work, like when a hurricane hit Puerto Rico and Luz was hosting visiting interns whose universities had closed down.

LC: They were missing home a lot. And if I knew of a concert of music from Puerto Rico, I would invite them there. And so I think that served to help to give them a sense of belonging that maybe they don't have, you know, in the everyday, in the work.

AG: Is this something that you've done when you're feeling lonely? You know, you create this experience for other people and it also helps you feel connected.

LC: Oh, definitely, because the cultural isolation has been something that I've experienced so much. So for me, surrounding myself with people, even though they're interns and more junior, but just having them around really helps me feel less lonely.

AG: On top of building a microcommunity, Luz was doing something else important here, something that directly affected her loneliness. There's evidence that helping others makes us feel less lonely. It allows us to feel that we matter, that we're noticed and valued and appreciated. For Luz, creating a space for young people of color to get a foothold in science helped her feel more connected to people at work. Helping others helped her. By now, she's been running intern programs at work for 15 years. She's expanded the microcommunity into an alumni network. And Luz feels less isolated.

LC: Whenever there's a seminar in my workplace, I'm the faculty member who comes in with an entourage of minority students.

AG: (Laughs)

AG: Not everyone is in a position to hire a community around them. But the number of friends you need to avoid feeling lonely at work is smaller than you might think. And the kind of interaction you need is more basic. More on that after the break.

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OK, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I've played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast, because they all have interesting cultures of their own. Today, we're going inside the workplace at SAP.

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Nico Neumann: We were told to be like a calculator, just to perform basic arithmetic operations. And I got the highest notes. I got a 10 out of 10.

AG: This is Nico Neumann. When he was in high school in Argentina, his favorite subject was computer science.

NN: I promised my parents that I was going to build, like, robots that clean the house. (Laughs)

AG: But like many people on the spectrum, Nico had difficulty connecting with his peers at school. So after three years of frustration and isolation, he approached his parents with a proposal.

NN: "Dad, Mom, I don't want to go to school anymore because I feel that it's just not doing good for me."

AG: It took some convincing, but they agreed.

NN: When I dropped out, then I had a lot of free time. So that's when I realized that I also liked to learn by myself.

AG: Nico eagerly dove into online programming tutorials.

NN: Now I got all of the fundamentals for how a computer works, how do you run a program, how do you efficiently manage software resources ...

AG: After two years of teaching himself to code, Nico went on the job hunt. His psychologist encouraged him to apply to SAP.

NN: I was selected to be in the first wave of the Autism at Work program.

AG: SAP's Autism at Work program leverages the unique perspectives of people on the spectrum to foster innovation. Through the program, Nico joined the accounts payable department as an analyst. His job was to process thousands of invoices a day. One day, Nico had an idea to make the process more efficient, an idea that would put his coding skills to good use. He wanted to bring it to his manager, but he still felt nervous navigating social situations. Thankfully, SAP had a mentorship system in place to support employees on the spectrum.

Bianca: We are here to help our colleagues in many different ways; not only to socialize, but also to solve any problems.

AG: That's Bianca, Nico's mentor. He asked her for guidance.

Bianca: He says, "Hey, we are doing this process in a very manual way, so I'm going to automate this." And, you know, I said, "OK, well, go ahead!"

AG: Research suggests that when managers give people freedom, instead of saying, "That's not my job," they're more likely to expand their roles to take the initiative to develop and implement new ideas. With his manager's approval, Nico spent two months building a computer program that would automate how SAP processed invoice payments. When he was finished, he ran some tests at work. The efficiency gains were huge.

NN: It was really successful. We had three full days, and we reduced the time of processing to just a couple of minutes.

AG: Accounts payable started using Nico's program regularly. Then a coworker nominated him for the Hasso Plattner Founders' Award, the most important recognition for innovation an employee can receive at SAP. After multiple rounds of interviews and voting, Nico was selected as a finalist. He was invited to the award ceremony in Germany.

Ceremony announcer: The winner is Nicholas Neumann, Posting Automation.

(Applause)

NN: And you have, I think, 100,000 employees watching the event. You can imagine how it feels. It's overwhelming to have so many people watching it, congratulating you ... So I'm really, really thankful.

Bianca: He was like a rock star here. Everybody wants to ask him for selfies. Now he's super confident. I'm really proud of him.

NN: It changed everything. My idea was to develop this just for the area that I worked for. I didn't think that it was going to be this huge impact.

AG: Today, Nico is finally getting to do what he's always wanted: programming full-time for SAP.

NN: I think the most important thing was the support from my colleagues, being given the flexibility and the time to develop this and see the results. And once you have the results, you can just continue to expand.

AG: SAP is a trailblazer for autism inclusion in the workplace and is inspiring other organizations through the SAP Autism Inclusion Pledge. It's no surprise that SAP earned over 200 Employer of Choice Awards in 2019. Check out careers at SAP and learn more about experience management solutions for your employees and customers at sap.com/worklife.

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(Musical interlude)

AG: In my first year of grad school, I was struggling to get my research accepted in journals and to feel accepted by my new classmates. Sitting alone at my desk over the December holidays, feeling isolated in the midst of a cold, gray, Michigan winter, I made a list of the 100 people who mattered most in my life and sent them each a note, telling them what I appreciated most about them. Suddenly, I didn't feel alone anymore. Looking back, 100 emails in one week was a little intense. But to this day, it's one of the most meaningful things I've ever done. I learned that it doesn't take a lot of effort to go from feeling lonely to feeling connected, even if it's from a distance. I was inspired by a mentor who encouraged me to think about the people who energize me.

Jane Dutton: I just was very aware that certain interactions with people would light me up, and others would, almost in the moment, well, they would be neutral or deplete me. And I just knew I wanted to hang around more with the people that lit me up or try to figure out what could I do that would make people light me up.

AG: This is Jane Dutton. She was my dissertation chair, and she has a remarkable gift for making connections with people and for people. If the University of Michigan was a solar system, she'd be the sun. Jane was the one who introduced me to the idea of a microcommunity. She doesn't just nurture relationships. She studies them, too. Her specialty is high-quality connections.

JD: I mean, you know them subjectively because they literally light you up. They leave you in the moment feeling more energized or a greater sense of vitality. And similarly, the opposite of that, a low-quality connection, is one where you actually in the moment feel de-energized or depleted. I often think of a wilted flower, you know, that just starts to droop after that interaction,

AG: Low-quality connections are like the Dementors in "Harry Potter." They suck the life out of work and reduce our performance. I wondered if Jane thinks high-quality connections might be an antidote to loneliness at work.

JD: I mean, loneliness, as I understand it, is really about the absence of connection. I think it could be an antidote to part of the problem of loneliness.

AG: Loneliness is a complex issue, but there are some simple steps you can take that might make a dent, even if — and maybe especially if — you're working remotely. Our highest-quality connections are often with friends at work, and research has shed light on just how many friends you need in order to not feel lonely. Any guesses? It's one. One work friend. Just one person who you feel connected to and understood by. One person to share some ups and downs with at work. That's all it takes. But Jane's research suggests that a relationship doesn't have to be lasting to create a high-quality connection. You can experience it in a momentary interaction with someone you don't know very well, a distant coworker or even a stranger, as long as the interaction leaves you feeling seen.

JD: You know, 40 seconds of interaction, a positive caring interaction, has measurable impacts on both. Both people — 40 seconds. Forty seconds!

AG: Jane and her collaborators find that in high-quality connections, we aren't just more energized and effective. We also learn and grow more. Fortunately, there are possibilities for high-quality connections everywhere. Jane looks for these in her daily life. Actually, she had one the day we spoke, with the receptionist at Michigan Public Radio, where she was settling in for our interview.

JD: Yes, the wonderful energy-creating thing she did is she could see that I was trying to write down some notes and she just asked me the simple question, "Do you need a pen? Can I get you a pen?" And I just felt seen, you know, kind of understood. And again, in the wake of preparing to sort of think about this interview where I'm a little bit nervous, I could actually feel my stress level go down as I got that sort of affirmation, that I am a person worth seeing and trying to help in that moment.

AG: After seeing the impact of high-quality connections on our work lives, Jane created an exercise to help people learn how to build them rapidly.

JD: Oh — I love this exercise. This is my killer exercise.

AG: It's something you can do in almost any work setting. You gather a group of people, ideally from different parts of your organization, and ask them to pair up with someone they barely know or don't know at all. They take turns trying to form a high-quality connection in that moment with one another. They don't get any directions, and they only have one minute each.

JD: And it's unbelievable what happens. I mean, it's so great because the energy of the room just like — voom!

AG: Afterward, Jane leads a discussion asking what worked for people.

JD: And I say, "OK, now you each give one each other one piece of feedback about what you saw worked in building a high-quality connection to you." And then — boom! — again, the energy just goes because we rarely get feedback about how little things that we do actually affect someone's sense of connection with you.

AG: Getting that positive feedback about what you did well is a helpful intervention in itself. I do this exercise in the classroom, and it's always a hit with students. They're often surprised to discover that they already have some intuitive skills for building rapid high-quality connections. But can it work somewhere where colleagues tend to keep to themselves?

To find out, we went to a coworking space in New York called PencilWorks. At PencilWorks, it's been a struggle to bring people together. The building's community manager, Nathan Windsor, has been grappling with this for a while.

Nathan Windsor: I mean, we've run game nights here every Friday for years, and people don't show up. And we do happy hours, and people don't show up. Everyone is really in their own office. They're really in their own head and like, "I have a meeting to get to. Bye." Like, "Welcome to Brooklyn." (Laughs)

Man in office: Right? Like, the loneliness thing is very real ...

AG: Coworking spaces are an extreme place to look at loneliness. People often go there searching for a sense of community but find that they have little in common with those around them. They may not work on a team together, belong to the same organization or share a mission and culture. Ironically, it can be lonelier than working alone. At PencilWorks, the long floors are divided into smaller offices with glass walls. You can see into each of them, but that doesn't make it easier to interact. Our producers Constanza and Jessica went looking for people to participate in Jane's exercise.

Constanza: I can see their faces. They're looking at us!

Jessica: Hi, do you guys have 15 minutes and want free cookies?

Man: No, I'm sorry. Jessica: OK, no worries.

AG: Finally, the promise of free baked goods secured a few participants.

Constanza: Yeah? OK. Amazing!

AG: Our producers explain the exercise to the group assembled: try to form a high-quality connection in one minute. If you were in their shoes, what would you say? How would you go about building an instant connection? Here's how one pair approached it.

Jessica: Jessica Hester, I'm a journalist.

Bess: I'm Bess Carey, I'm an HR manager.

AG: Jessica and Bess work for the same company but they barely know each other.

Jessica: Alright, I am excited or interested to know what the last thing you read or watched was that gave you, like, a ton of joy.

Bess: Ummm ... I have no ... I have no idea.

Jessica: Well, is there a thing that you regularly go back to, like when it's cold and you're bummed, and you just need ...

AG: So how do you create a rapid connection? Here's what Jane Dutton is listening for.

JD: What is the first move that was made? What was the first question? Did they go to something that's sort of routine, like, you know, "Where'd you grow up?" or do they go to a question that really communicates deep interest and kind of positive regard for another, like, "What is the most meaningful thing that happened to you this week?"

Jessica: I feel bad that I stressed Bess out with my question.

Bess: Oh! Don't feel bad! That's, like, a personal problem. (Laughs)

Jessica: Yeah, but I think that's really interesting and illustrative because you don't know what things will trip someone up when you're making what strikes one person as casual conversation can be like a nerve that another person has that's raw that you don't know about.

AG: Jessica and Bess's exchange shows that a connection doesn't always form automatically. But when they debriefed about it, the dynamic changed. Bess: I often talk to people while I'm microwaving my lunch, and I always microwave my lunch for three minutes.

AG: That's Bess again.

Bess: So I talk to people as long. Like, I often am like, "Whoever's standing by the microwave talks to me for three minutes," and then I'm like, "I guess I have to go eat in my office by myself." (Laughs)

Jessica: You don't have to eat by yourself.

Bess: I know! I don't know why I do that.

Jessica: Come eat in the common room.

Bess: I should do that.

AG: If you want to build a rapid high-quality connection, the research points to a few effective strategies. One is looking for uncommon commonalities, similarities you share that are rare. A second is asking those open-ended questions, showing real curiosity about the other person — as long as you don't put them on the spot or cross any lines. A third is self-disclosure, sharing something about yourself. That's what Jessica was responding to when Bess opened up about her sad desk lunch. Let's hear how it worked out for another pair.

Alex: Alex Massey. I'm a journalist.

Jeff: I'm Jeff Harris, I'm a photographer.

AG: They work for different companies and have never met before, but that doesn't stop Jeff from opening up.

Jeff: Already, I'm feeling a little bit emotional about it, because I do experience a lot of isolation in the workplace. I used to work with a big group of people and over the years, the industry has changed. I'm a photographer and so I find myself to be alone. I miss that sense of camaraderie.

Alex: You already shared something that's a bit vulnerable, but I'm kind of curious: What is the biggest challenge you're facing at work right now or the thing that's, like, on the top of your head the most?

Jeff: For me personally, it's the same thing. It's about making that effort to get myself out in the world more, to be around other people.

AG: Here, what I heard was self-disclosure.

Jeff: And I felt that the connection was opened up or embraced when Alex took notice of that.

Alex: I think what really helped was the fact that this was an exercise and that kind of gave us permission to act differently than we would otherwise. And it meant we were going to be, like, fully present and make eye contact, in a way that you might not in a casual encounter.

AG: There's something built into this exercise that's sometimes hard to recreate in everyday life, which is, the mutuality is designed into it. It's almost like starting on a second date, where you show up and you know the person is opted in, and they're excited to interact with you. And I wondered how you go about creating that outside the exercise.

JD: Yeah, we have to prime ourselves, partly, about the positive potential in the other person.

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AG: You can't force a high-quality interaction with anyone and everyone you encounter. Some people will just be in their heads, closed off. But if your team or organization isn't doing anything about loneliness on a larger scale, you might be able to brighten your own day and other people's days by simply engaging with them in small ways, ways that acknowledge them and make you feel connected, too.

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When Jane first introduced me to the idea of high-quality connections, I found it liberating, because relationships, whether they're with colleagues or friends, they take a lot of work. And realizing that there are all these opportunities to feel a momentary connection with people even if I might never see them again was freeing. Loneliness won't be solved through one action. But small interactions day by day are the building blocks of real connection to the people around you.

JD: I love the idea that in every interaction we have with other people, we can leave a trace that makes that person better off.

AG: Oh, that's such a beautiful statement.

JD: Yeah, it's magnificent. It's just ... and it's true!

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AG: Next time on WorkLife.

Man: I used to interview the same way everybody else did: two people sitting across a table lying to each other for a couple hours.

AG: (Laughs) Do you think it's that bad?

Man: I think we're all trying to puff each other up.

AG: Should we kill the job interview or reinvent it?

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AG: WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Dan O'Donnell Constanza Gallardo, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Angela Cheng and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by Jessica Glazer. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Studios.

Special thanks to our sponsors: Accenture, BetterUp, Hilton and SAP.

For their research thanks to Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and colleagues on relationships at work; Hakan Ozcelik and Sigal Barsade on loneliness at work; Julianne Holt-Lunstad on the health implications of loneliness; Tracy Dumas, Kathy Phillips, Nancy Rothbard, Paul Ingram and Michael Morris on company parties and happy hours; Jerry Burger and colleagues on uncommon commonalities; Karen Huang and colleagues on asking questions; and Kerry Gibson and colleagues on self-disclosure.

And if you're interested, Vivek Murthy just published a book about loneliness. It's called "Together."

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AG: If you could say one thing to someone who feels lonely, what would you say to them?

VM: I would say that because you're lonely it does not mean that you're broken, that many of us experience loneliness, and if you're lonely, you're certainly not alone.