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As all the red roses droop, the hearts and balloons are put away for another year and the public displays of intimacy are past, we are thinking about what it takes for leaders to foster true relationships in the workplace. Do we set a calendar date to tell people how much they matter to us, how much we appreciate them, what we think are their sublime qualities or do we just wait for the appraisal date and contemplate devices as crude as the ‘feedback sandwich’?

Engagement is a worldwide issue for large businesses. A 2012 Towers Watson global survey of 32,000 employees finds that ⅔ of employees are either disengaged or feel unsupported by the business. Once you realised that the truly engaged are sprinkled from the top to the bottom of the organisation you begin to wonder how companies stay in business. 26% are disengaged – the living dead going through enough of the motions to avoid detection (but then again – who is looking closely enough?) or the c.v. pedlars who just can’t wait to get out. Some of those by the way are the most senior people who talk about their ‘running away fund’ – as soon as the mortgage is paid, the children’s school fees organised, whatever… they promise themselves they’ll be off. Between these extremes you find everything from the almost catatonic, to the ones that could be boosted into highly engaged with the slightest encouragement.

Triage on the battlefield or A & E means that in an emergency you ignore those who will live or die anyway and you put your focus on those who could go either way. If you could increase engagement of the moderately engaged by even 10%, what commercial advantage could this give you? People are really complex but also quite simple. The human condition demands that in order to grow into fully formed adults we need to connect, belong, form attachments, receive recognition. Anything else leads to psychopathy. Our organisations are human systems. How do we make them humane as well? We hear a lot of theory about Emotional Intelligence but somehow behaving in an emotionally intelligent way becomes awfully difficult when you have been encouraged for years to leave your feelings at the door as you clock in. So the emotions talked about most in the corporate world are anxiety, stress, fear, frustration. The positive, life enhancing feelings like excitement, joy, love, fascination, inspiration are a little less obvious.

We also hear quite a lot of talk from senior people about their need to develop intimacy with people at work. Yet, when we work in groups with clients, every time they approach what could be an intimate moment of genuine thought or self-disclosure, some wise guy cracks a joke or uses another displacement device to avoid the fearsome risk of embarrassment. When you then put them into a structured exercise that requires to go beyond the usual mundanities of the weather, the best back roads or the budget, and give them the opportunity to engage in deep and meaningful topics, they take to it like ducks to water. Often people feel constrained about talking about  anything personal with work colleagues. Of course, professional communication should be planned and purposeful but in order to really know your people, understand their drivers it is critical to be comfortable having some of those deep and meaningful conversations in ordinary time not just when big life events intrude.

When working with leaders to enable them to become emotionally connected and inspirational, we often start with heroic leadership styles – Henry V, Tim Collins, and the like, to challenge and refresh stale, jargonised linguistics but then it always has to move on to emotional openness and self revelation. That takes guts but, when, from a position of perceived strength, they open up about their own doubts and fears they transmogrify into the type of leader people might actually want to follow.

Top tips:

1) Response contingent positive reinforcement – fancy words for ‘catch someone doing something (anything) right and tell them immediately’. Point out what strengths they were using to do it and ask them to find new ways of using those strengths. Every one gives positive feedback, but few do it well or often enough and far too many think it is the mere bread in the sandwich that allows you to tell people the bad stuff.

2) Use selective self-disclosure. A leader who looks perfect (and only you know you are not) or tries to appear perfectly in control at all times is not a good role model. Someone who copes inspires us better. Let them see some of your workings, how you got to this point in your calculations or ability to see the future e.g. I had some real doubts about this path but I overcame them because… I have had my dark nights of the soul, but now…

3) Love people to bits – that’s the White Water mantra. However awkward, difficult or different from you people choose to be, find what is wonderful, unique, special and admirable in them. Focus on that, tell them genuinely what you like and respect about them, reward steps in the right direction and ignore the ‘naughty ‘ behaviour- (works for children too!)

4) Be brave enough to allow greater intimacy. Avoid the instinct to shut down. People are capable of huge and deep thoughts about the meaning of life. See where that goes instead.

Averil, François and all at White Water Group

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