I Just Need a Little Space

What’s the worst thing you want to hear from your partner in a relationship? Does anything good ever follow for the person hearing the words, “I just need a little space.”? Hearing this is pretty clear indication that the relationship is not just headed for but already well on the rocks.

It may have been many months since you’ve been aggravated by traffic congestion. One positive pandemic side effect has been less cars on the streets. Consider a time in the past when you were driving and you felt the “presence” of some car following too closely behind. How did you feel? What did you think? Chances are it wasn’t, “oh, this must be someone I know or someone friendly.” No, it is more likely that you thought “who is this such and such that is cramping my style?” “Who do they think they are? Where are they off to in such a hurry? What is it I owe them?” “I just need a little space.” When the bubble of our personal privacy zone is punctured, we become either defensive, angry, or both. When what we consider to be our personal space is transgressed, we react negatively. We assume the worst. This is now becoming our default experience. We’re more sensitive to other’s proximity to us in today’s COVID world.

David Brooks, in this New York Times article, reminds us that historically we haven’t been our best when confronted with public health issues. Past pandemics produced reduced compassion and tolerance of others not more.

The picture becomes more bleak when we combine Brooks’ article with fairly recent research that shows a strong connection between public health problems like viruses being highly related to a population’s willingness to accept authoritarian governments.

We see this in our own worlds. When our health is threatened and we see each other as a risk, we’re more accepting of control over our lives. We are now encouraged to report others that aren’t complying. Social Media shaming and COVID cops making headlines by ticketing violators. We are even arguing about our social distancing. Six feet isn’t good enough. To conform with 2M we need to recognize that the conversion is 6.5 feet. We’re drawing lines on store floors to separate us in line ups. We’re drawing circles in parks and school playgrounds to demonstrate how we’re supposed to distance ourselves. In China, the kids are forced to wear propeller hats (and it’s not just the smart kids) with props that have a diameter equal to the desired distancing requirements. We cling to conform to more rules and rigidly monitor others for compliance.

A few years ago, there were a series of great ads from Snickers. They showed someone acting in socially inappropriate ways. The character was grumpy, rude, hostile, and belligerent. Their concerned friends thankfully had a miraculous and instantaneous solution at the ready. Offering the personality plagued person a Snickers immediately calmed them down. Even the grumpy characters were surprised at their conversion. The friends would say, “you’re not you when you’re hungry”. Well, nowadays we’re not us when we’re surrounded by anxiety and fear in our COVID context.

“The moment there is suspicion about a person’s motives, everything he does becomes tainted.” -Mahatma Gandhi-

The Pygmalion Effect is a term which followed some psychology studies involving teachers. Teachers were told a bit of information about their students before the start of a class. They learned either that their students had tested as above or below average on some standardized test while, in fact, the students in both cases were randomly selected as average. There was nothing either problematic or advantageous associated with either group. However, the expectations the teachers had of their students substantially affected how they, in turn, treated the students. Those teachers who thought they were teaching gifted students leaned in, worked harder, and taught in ways which helped their students achieve better than average results. This can be contrasted with the efforts of teachers who thought they were teaching students with less stellar abilities. These teachers ended up teaching in ways that provided their pupils with less knowledge. In each case, the students’ results reflected the perception the teachers had of them. The Pygmalion Effect is a powerful idea that helps us understand that how we view a situation has a lot to do with how we will approach it and what our ultimate outcome may be. The Pygmalion Effect is simply that we tend to see for what we’re looking.

The surest way to make a man untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust. —HENRY STIMSON, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE…

We see the Pygmalion Effect in many areas. Trust is one of these areas. Where “authorities” or people in charge don’t trust their constituents we see increased barriers put in place between the parties. This breeds further distrust between both sides. Think union and management. Think autocratic states like China and their citizens. Think the number of pages in a business contract. The more pages, the less trust between the parties. Some would suggest it is naïve to think that we can trust each other to figure out how best to manage ourselves individually. We need, they would assert, the government to create and enforce rules of engagement amongst us. If we impose increased rules between us, doesn’t the Pygmalion effect and Henry Stimson’s quote predict we’re predisposing our senses to finding problems? We’re looking for what others are doing which is “wrong”. As Stephen Covey writes in The Speed of Trust, “Take communication, In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.” We’re not only creating physical distance between us but also mental distance. Our trust deteriorates. However, if we commit to having faith that we can individually manage ourselves to make sensible decisions not just for ourselves but for each other, we may be able to salvage and smooth our relations together. Here’s Covey again, “in a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing, and people will still get your meaning.”

Intuitively, we appreciate it when others trust us. We want to honor the confidence they have put in us. The depth of responsibility we feel towards something is influenced by the trust we’re afforded. If we’re serving a role where our job is simply to follow the script verbatim, how invested are we in our efforts? Contrast that with the customer service professional entrusted with freedom to handle any incoming complaint with a budget of $200 per issue available to “spend”. Is the latter role more likely to be both better performed and received? Like President Reagan urged Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid 80s, let’s “Tear Down These Walls.” What are ways we can consider trying to build trust and decrease barriers in our own business worlds?

Marcus Buckingham, author of First, Break All the Rules, invites us to consider why we follow someone. Buckingham suggests we follow clarity. Those that can reduce uncertainty and convey confidence for the future pull us in behind them. “A great leader finds a way of making the world less scary and bringing a level of certainty to a situation.” Before we can focus our efforts on supporting our customer base we need to provide our staff and colleagues with comfort and confidence.

Tom Kolditz is a Brigadier General in the US military that teaches at West Point Academy. He has written books and offers courses on a form of leadership referred to as Leadership in Extremis. In Extremis is Latin for “at the point of death”. Originally conceived to identify and teach the core tenets of leading in life threatening situations applicable to military or exploration expeditions, it is being used to help leaders manage crises in other environments like today’s COVID circumstances. The essence of leadership where we’re working with people who are afraid, for their lives, or their lifestyle and livelihood all pivots on trust.

The last thing people need in trying circumstances is the “rah, rah” locker room pep talk. We’re craving a calming influence. People are predisposed to follow during trying times. Often, the approval ratings for political leaders go up markedly during a crisis because of this tendency to support. Leaders that have demonstrated competence in the past can use this like a magnet to boost loyalty during crisis. People want to be led by a calm, competent leader. They are more open to being told exactly what to do during times of crisis. Beyond competence, the other magnet Kolditz offers to draw people to leaders is showing “shared risk”. People trust those who lead from the front. Leaders need to show that they have ‘skin in the game.’ This can be done by leaders demonstrating how they are or will be sacrificing similarly to that of their charges.

The following four suggestions may be of use to help strengthen staff relations by building trust as we steadily ramp up our service outreach in the coming months.

Demonstrate Respect.

Illustrate Constancy/Stability.

Be Transparent.

Clarify Expectations.

Demonstrate Respect:

You’ve been doing a great job of this for the last several months and prior. This involves respecting the importance and dignity of each role within the organization. Being empathetic and supportive of people’s personal circumstances is part of demonstrating respect. Having direct contact with your team members is a way to accomplish this objective. Now that we’re working to transition back to our “normal operations”, we want to encourage holding on to this approach. Some staff will be both interested and excited to come back to the office while others will remain wary. Both should be respected and accommodated where possible. Your continued efforts here will be seen and appreciated by your customers. They will feel better knowing that your staff are considered in your decision making.

Illustrate Constancy/Stability:

From continuing to demonstrate respect, we can try to reduce uncertainty associated with our COVID chaos by showcasing some stability. Reinforce the parts of our operation that aren’t changing. For example, some parts of the way we do business may be changing, but the who won’t be. The team, the people, the personnel, who you talked with yesterday will be who you talk with tomorrow. The relationships will remain consistent. Many of our processes will remain constant as well. Reinforce regularity by drawing staff’s attention to what is staying the same. We can then try to provide perspective where together as an organization we have faced and successfully handled substantial changes in our business environments. Can we draw on past experience where a group of our insureds were dramatically affected by a natural disaster (Fort McMurray fires or Calgary area floods, for example)? How did we dig in as a team and provide support during past challenges? We’re trying to draw strength from our past efforts and apply them to today. We want to remind our staff and each other that we’ve survived struggle in the past while holding our core values in tact. We can do so again now with COVID-19.

Be Transparent:

Integral to both showing respect and stability is being transparent. As we learned in Kindergarten, sharing is caring. Err on the side of commission. Harry Kraemer, former CEO of Baxter International, relies on two leadership principles to get through challenging times. Both of these are at the core of being transparent. Mantra 1: You’re going to do the right thing, and you’re going to do the best you can do. The second leadership in crisis principle of Harry Kraemer is: Mantra 2: You’re going to tell people what you know, what you don’t know, and when you’ll get back to them to discuss what you didn’t know before. This two pronged approach is pretty concrete guidance for a communications program.

As the CEO of Air France, Jean-Cyril Spinetta recommends, “Try to be transparent, clear and truthful. Even when it is difficult, and above all when it is difficult.” Especially when the news is not great, it’s better to be forthright and present information to your team than for them to hear it through the rumor mill. Can you consider presenting certain financial information, even at a high level, that offers both transparency and reassurance? Another airlines executive, Rollin King, of Southwest Airlines, shares great advice, “We adopted a philosophy that we wouldn’t hide anything, not any of our problems, from the employees.”

Business executive, Ed Catmull, supports transparency as a way to cultivate engagement and buy-in to the company’s efforts. “Sharing problems is an act of inclusion that makes employees feel invested in the larger enterprise.” Involve employees in making decisions around what should be done in order to make things more comfortable for them to come back to the office. Ask their input with respect to how to manage serving and meeting customers in the coming months. Help staff gain personal comfort and confidence that their role remains safe.

Clarify Expectations:

This is an extension of transparency. The goal is to work together between Management and Staff to create agreement about what is to be done up front. Blaine Lee reminds us, “Almost all conflict is a result of violated expectations.”

One method to use with hopes of getting on the same page is what’s referred to as a “continue, stop, start inquiry”. Here, staff are asked to answer three questions:

  1. What is one thing we’re doing now that we should CONTINUE doing?
  2. What is one thing we’re doing now that we should STOP doing?
  3. What is one thing we’re NOT doing now that we should START doing?

By seeking input from staff using an approach like this, we’re demonstrating respect, being transparent, and clarifying expectations together.

We hope these approaches are helpful and you’re able to adopt even a couple of them into your efforts to build trust and decrease barriers between your business and staff in the coming months.