The Leader Who Thrives: Work is Social
I sit at my desk, looking out on the French Alps across the frosty Lac Leman on this relative mild Friday afternoon in late January. The view belies the extraordinary difference in the way we are working today. Factually, I do not want to mention a reason ‘why’ because we all know a ‘why.’ We only want to move as quickly as possible to a declaration of ‘glad that’s over.’ My thoughts today are about how we can experience a little of ‘glad that’s over’ in these moments. Tomorrow is today and we cannot wait until vaccines and conditions take hold before we take hold of leadership.
Since the new year began, I have talked with several former colleagues and friends about their states of mind since March 2020. Our conversations were behind masks in an array of styles, sitting 5 to 10 meters apart, challenged to decipher muffled words, squinting through foggy eyeglass lenses, and nearly perspiring to death as our masks overheated our faces. We talked about emotions and sensations of feeling uncertain of our places in the world because we feel incredibly isolated without the regular, confirming presence of other people. Recently, I have read a lot on work’s social benefits, and I feel like breaking things down to a reality.
As a leader of people, the kind who likes strategy, results, and empowered, high performing teams, speaking of work in a social context may seem awkward. Yet according to my circle, the topic is not such a strange idea. How can we not we think of work as social? Look around us and we see all the things that reinforce our need to belong, to be seen and heard, and to have meaning. We protest. We have book clubs, family gatherings, church congregations, parties, sporting events, networking, and language exchange groups.
In the pre-COVID-19 workplace, we had the on-site café, and we encouraged the occasional team building activity. Can you recall a time when you highly anticipated arriving to the office to discuss something with your office buddy or to hear what the chatter was regarding an organisational change? What about a time you were having a particularly difficult time personally and your work provided a sense of safety and solace that you found in understanding colleagues around you? Aha. We get the picture. These are the social aspects of work. Of course, I could expand this to more theory about the interplay of organisation culture, values, and pervasive behaviours. I prefer to be uncomplicated.
As we think about how we are longing for less on-screen time, perhaps we adopt a different perspective? Begin by asking questions such as:
- What do I know about an employee that tells me if things are going well with work or if circumstances that might be affecting how they are showing up at work?
- What do I know about employee X, Y, or Z that tells me something about what inspires them or gives me insight into how they like to be acknowledged or made to feel they belong?
- What can I do to build on my existing knowledge to increase more personalised interactions over the digital network?
- Is there something that I am authentically feeling or doing that relates to what employees X, Y, or Z may be experiencing in this or another situation at this time?
In virtual conversations are you intentionally allowing space that communicates to you and others it is okay to be human? Asking “how are things going” and then moving briskly on to the tasks at hand can starve anyone’s motivation. No one will feel seen, or heard, or valued. If someone loathes speaking, every opportunity can be a means of introducing light inquiry about how things are going. We often move so fast that it is rare to tune in to a bland “I’m fine.” From some that may be the norm, for others maybe not. Shifts in temperaments may signal someone is being challenged. What might you say to enhance rapport in such a situation?
In the spirit of being a thriving leader, being yourself may open doors in ways not anticipated. Leaders who inspire are as in touch with their own humanity as much as they desire to be in touch with others. I look again at the snow caps on the Alpes and breath a sigh. We forget how the cheery ‘good morning’ from ‘Nathalie’ lifts our spirits, making us feel that we belong. On a daily basis, cultivate an atmosphere of interest and connection with your team members. Distance will feel less distant and the pixels more real.
Enjoy your day!
“True teams are made when you put aside individual wants for collective good.”
– Chiney Ogwumike –