How do we connect in a disconnected world?
I realize that I am not the first to address the communication challenges of today, when we’re all connected 7/24 and via a multitude of electronic devices—PDAs, tablets, laptops—the list is endless. While offering convenience, these devices also keep us tethered like electronic dog leashes. And, like the dog on the end of the leash, we have a limited range of motion and minimal human contact.
There are many tips for managing one’s electronic arsenal. But I won’t address those here, other than to mention one technique that I find very successful: I shut them off. Dazzling.
Instead, I’d like to talk about a different phenomenon I’m seeing that I think is related to the pervasiveness of personal communication devices. Increasingly, I see extreme reactions to direct human contact. When I make what I think is a small gesture of human kindness, the response is overwhelmingly—and I think disproportionally—positive.
Here’s one example. Recently I was the after-dinner speaker at a senior management class at Siemens. My talk was about what it means to be a senior executive at our company. In other words: how to be a good leader. I knew four of the 30 folks attending the class and beforehand I memorized the other participants’ names so that I could respond to everyone personally. One of my strongly held beliefs about leadership is that good leaders invest in the people around them. In this case, my investment was to learn the names of the folks attending the class.
During pre-dinner drinks, I walked up to each person and introduced myself, addressing them by name as I said hello. Most folks were wearing name badges, but a few were not, yet I still addressed them by name. Silence. The people standing around us were astonished.
After a buffet dinner, everyone sat in a circle in a large meeting room. I made my remarks, and then opened the floor to Q&A. Most of the people were too far away from me for me to be able to see their name badges, so gradually, everyone realized I knew their names.
It was a transformational moment. Yes, I know this sounds a little odd. In my ten years at Siemens, I have spoken to at least 30 such classes. Each time, I memorized all of the names before I arrived, and each time, it was clearly appreciated. But this time was different; I could really see that it had a big impact on the participants.
While I was happy my gesture made a positive impression, I also had the nagging sense that this was a little sad: I was getting way too much credit for something I think all leaders should do in similar situations. I thought about it in the car on my way home and came to the conclusion that people found my action so remarkable because we’re increasingly disconnected on a human level. Although we’re über-connected electronically, I would offer we’re more disconnected from other people than ever before.
Connecting with people, having an impact, even a small one, makes me happy at work. Try it. The next time you are in a seminar or workshop or some other similar situation, try to learn everyone’s name before you go. Yes, it takes some time, but we all learned how to memorize in school, so this is not a new skill. It takes me about an hour to learn 30 new names and faces. (Flashcards are my friends.) I guarantee that people will appreciate the effort and that you’ll be rewarded well beyond your investment.