Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Power Of Hello

Saturday Night Live screenshot via TV Worth Watching

The other day an old friend and I were catching up and the conversation as always turned to work.

"I don't think much of the senior leadership where I am," she said. "They can't even be bothered to say hello."

The exchange made me think of the power of hello. How it really makes a difference to me when people actually take a moment to greet you. Putting themselves aside for five seconds.

How impactful it is when important people take a moment to do that.

If you want to assess someone's leadership potential, see what they do with the opportunity.

  • Someone I know of once shared an elevator ride with President Obama, while he was still a Senator. The President said hello.
  • Another person met Kourtney Kardashian in a backstage setting, and she was extremely nice and said hello. Khloe Kardashian, however, apparently did not.
  • Many, many years ago my daughter took a karate class with newswoman Anne Curry's child, of Today Show fame. We were startled when we saw Anne in the 23rd Street studio and said hello. She warmly replied in kind.

People tend to remember the smallest things about other people, because those details are so revealing about personality.

When it comes to judging a leader, a seemingly minor thing like a hello becomes a very big indicator of their character. We may not be able to understand the complex issues that leader faces, but we can all understand whether they act like a mensch.

Contrary to what many people think, leaders are not naturally comfortable interacting with others. For many of them, especially if they are introverted, it is actually incredibly difficult. 

In addition, the norms surrounding female leadership are still hazy. Where a male executive's greeting establishes a human connection, a female's greeting may serve to minimize her authority. As Harvard Business Review has noted, employees tend to respect "tougher" female executives more.

Regardless of all of this, rightly or wrongly, the feeling of being slighted can quickly lead to ill-will.

At the end of the day, the importance of "hello" to the well-functioning organization cannot be minimized. It is effectively the act of recognizing another human being. Saying hello means "I see you" - "it is important that I see you" - "you occupy space in this room and are as important as me."

Saying "hello" in a sincere way is an act of humanism. Instead of putting abstract ideals first, you treat people well and that is more important than pretty much anything else.

The basic "hello" in a work setting is part and parcel of culture. No matter what your values and beliefs are, they start fundamentally by acknowledging the importance of other people in helping the organization achieve its mission.

I think of branding internally as "the organizing principle around which we function." Branding is composed of communication, of course, and consistency, but both of these fundamentally rest on culture. The more cohesive the group and the stronger its norms, the more easily it can adopt consistent yet flexible methods of operation, and communicate these inside and outside.

When you do branding well internally, it produces your desired image externally. See my slide "The 3 C's of Corporate Branding," below.

You can download this slide at my SlideShare page.

Embracing the humanity of others is particularly important in the workplace today because it motivates people. At a time when we need the individual mind and heart more than ever, acting indifferent to the humanity of one's employees guarantees that they will do as little as possible and then leave.

Focusing on the wellness of one's employees mirrors the humanism that is taking hold of society on a larger scale, with more emphasis than ever on volunteerism and efforts to improve the lives of vulnerable populations around the world.

Humanism works as a social glue because caring for others is a uniting thread whether you identify with synagogue, a church, a mosque or a Buddhist temple, none of the above or several of them. It's about being part of the collective rather than isolating yourself.

Branding in the workplace is really just a transitional tool as we move to the cashless society. Over time, as technology becomes capable of handling most work, and of producing wealth sufficient to care for the global population, the workplace and money-earning as we know it now will become obsolete.

At that point humanism will become important to minimize the risk that bad actors will take advantage of technology to exercise power over most of the less-techno-literate world. To counter this excess of power, there must be an extremely strong social fabric comprised of people whose first ethic is to look out for each other.

In short, the simple power of "hello" is its symbolic meaning as a prosocial act. In the past, antisocial tendencies -- the willingness to kill rather than die -- were adaptive because they helped the individual consolidate power in a hostile world. In the future, helping behavior will become more important as it is the networked individuals who always have a community. This means a place to live, food to eat, clothing to wear and people who can comfort them through life's many bumps and bruises.

* As always, all opinions are my own.