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How to build Culture and Connection in a Disconnected World

How to build Culture and Connection in a Disconnected World

Dan Kaplan poses with friends at a climb for hope mission

By Dan Kaplan '91

The First Move

While facilitating a communications workshop, I was asked a question I get a lot these days: How in today’s post-COVID, over-sensitive, quick-to-judge and disconnected workplace, can we build connection and community?

I replied with Newton’s Law.

How strange, I know, to answer a communications question with physics. But hey, I’m a Terp and I was taught how to make connections.

You remember what inertia is, right? An object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force. Same is true for office culture and relationships. So, how do you overcome inertia in cultures and relationships?

By saying, “I’ll go first.”

Initiating Change

When you go first, you initiate change. You become the outside force. Let’s say you’re a manager, and you know your staff feels unsupported by your organization. What can you do?

You can ask, “What does support look like to you?”

Let’s say you’re an employee, and you’re feeling disconnected from your team. What can you do?

You can tell your boss, “I feel like I’m on an island here and could use some help.”

Let’s say you’re upset with a co-worker. What can you do

You can say, “When you spoke over me in that meeting, I was really frustrated. Can I tell you why?”

When you’re in an elevator with a stranger, and you’re the one to make eye contact and smile, what happens 99% of the time?

Dan Kaplan and his wife Jill Green posing in front of STAMP's Testudo statue

Dan Kaplan '91 and his wife Jill Green '91 both graduated from the University of Maryland and remain Fearless Terps.

They smile back.

Even if that connection is momentary, it has the power to uplift you. And it uplifted them. That’s why they smiled back. Abraham Maslow taught us that connection is a basic human need. We are social animals. We have survived and thrived for millennia by helping and protecting each other. Even at work, we need to feel connected to the group.

So when you say, “I’ll go first,” you make the connection. You put energy into it. You set something in motion, and you create something positive, good and hopeful. And we all know that you get what you give.

Here's how to do it

Let’s say you lead a hybrid team, and you want to foster a sense of connection. Here’s how you can go first.

You can look into the camera when you’re meeting on Zoom, to make eye contact, and help people feel seen. Then, when you’re not speaking, you can observe everyone else’s body language. (Thankfully, 80% of body language happens above the shoulders). You can look for interest or disinterest, then follow up after with a call.

“Hey, I noticed that when Jackson was discussing his plan, you seemed put off. Is that something you want to talk about?”

As Esther Perel said, “The conversation is the relationship.” This is how you build relationships, even virtually. You go first. Yes, it takes more time and emotional energy, but what worthwhile endeavor doesn’t?

Here’s another way: Bring your team together just to get to know each other on a deeper level, no other reason. Ask everyone to share three things: 1) Where did you grow up, 2) Where do you fall in your sibling order, and 3) A unique challenge of your childhood.

We’ve all struggled and have had to overcome. Each and every one of us.

And when we learn what each other had to go through just to get to where we are today, then we see each other as human beings. When we see each other as similar to ourselves - as part of a group, a tribe, or a team, we are less likely to judge or accuse. We’ll give a little more grace. We’ll empathize. We’ll be more connected.

Just remember to say, “I’ll go first.”


Dan Kaplan (BA English & Business, ‘91) provides communications training to leaders, managers, and teams, using DiSC, the 5 Behaviors of A Cohesive Team, and his heart. Read his 2 Minute Tips at


Publication of this article does not imply an endorsement by the Alumni Association. The Alumni Blog connects you with the latest at UMD. Check out articles on advancing your personal and professional goals, elevating your UMD pride, and celebrating Terp traditions, legacies and accomplishments. For even more content, follow the Alumni Association on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


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