Giving the gift of presence (Guest Commentary)

Cultural change isn’t an instantaneous event – it happens one person at a time and is built one conversation at a time

A very close friend of my wife lost her mother a few weeks ago. In fact, this friend was my wife’s maid of honour at our wedding. The funeral was, as you would expect, very sad, but buoyed by the mother’s rich legacy gifted to her children and grandchildren. The priest talked about the gift of “presence,” offered in the context that everyone present was there in loving support of the family.

It was appreciated and important to the grieving process. We were reminded that each of us provided a very unique and personal connection to the bereaved family members. Our presence demonstrated a genuine care and concern for each family member in mourning and it was this outpouring of emotion that would sustain the family during this time of tragic loss. 

Watching my wife console her deepest friend reminded me, once again, that special relationships occur one person at a time. And this notion of “presence” has stuck with me.

In the organizations in which we serve, and in our daily conversations, do we give the gift of our presence? Are we emotionally connected with those who work with us in organizations, to the extent we genuinely care about them? Or is so much of it superficial?

Creating true connection 
Last week, an executive sent me an article about holacracy and openly wondered whether this system of organizational governance might reduce bureaucratic thinking and behaviour. 

We know that distributing authority can be a challenge, and  office politics can spoil relationships and dampen innovation. 
Holacracy within a group is a self-organizing entity with a specific function and defined rules of engagement. It is centred on the work to be accomplished, whereas hierarchies tend to circle around the people. 

Focusing on the work and the outcomes, with joint accountabilities, has produced astonishing results in some companies. Zappos is perhaps the most publicized one and Tony Hsieh, CEO, demands that employees commit to the culture. 

In fact, if employees cannot subscribe, he will pay them to leave. 

Hsieh is a student of the science of happiness and Zappos seeks to engender happiness by balancing four basic human needs: perceived progress, perceived control, relatedness and connection to a larger vision. 

This is a very individualized approach and, as many organizations would acknowledge, culture change also occurs one person at a time, built upon one conversation at a time. 

Meeting the four basic needs, which I think are self-evident, drives powerful, intrinsic motivation, but it takes two parties to create the loyalty and allegiance that lead to success. 

I ask myself whether we are building organizations that really care, or whether so much of what we do is shallow. 
Even at the most basic level, are our managers equipped to have the types of conversations that Hsieh would demand of his management team?

Some organizations understand the power of conversation. It is therefore timely that a February SCNetwork event would take very practical look at coaching and the dividend received from that commitment. 

Rogers Communications call centres are our case study and they deploy 24 internal coach practitioners to train 400 front-line call centre managers. 

These managers learn to distinguish between coaching, teaching, directing and performance management conversations, and the measurable results speak for themselves. 

I am sure this approach meets most of what Hsieh believes are key for his organization too, but I’m left to wonder how often coaches are actually “present” in these conversations. 

In this digital age, with short attention spans, our minds drift and we seem to become anxious quickly. In Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversations, she claims most of us consult our phones every six-and-a-half minutes and she fears we are losing the art of conversation. 

“Face-to-face conversation is the most human — and humanizing — thing we do,” she says. “It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy.”

It was empathy and compassion the priest was speaking of at the funeral. Writer and management consultant Margaret Wheatley has said:

“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise or coach or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.”

But we don’t have time to sit still and listen, right? As one manager said about one of his staff — “I have enough of my own problems; I don’t have time to listen to hers.” This will never remotely meet the need of relatedness. 

My lesson is I need to remind myself constantly that cultural change happens one conversation at a time, and I need to be better at being present at each one, whether consoling a friend, counselling on performance or facilitating a dispute.

Ian Hendry is president of the Strategic Capability Network and is vice-president of HR and administration at Interac in Toronto. This blog also appeared on LinkedIn and Canadian HR Reporter’s website

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