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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.

Department of Crazy

Thanks to Vine, Porschia Coleman and Jezebel we get to witness the meltdown of the day. Apparently a woman did not have an appointment at the Apple Store and really needed to have that appointment. Or perhaps a therapy appointment.

It is hard to watch this video mainly because I feel bad for the kid sitting in that stroller as Mom slaps away on the handlebar.

Secondly I feel bad for the adult Apple store employee at whom the woman is yelling.

How much do employees get paid to hear rants like that? Probably not enough. But they are trained to deal with disgruntled customers.

Most employees are not trained to deal with crazy behavior in the workplace.

The term "crazy behavior" goes beyond mere "failure to follow procedures," although that is undoubtedly stressful. The question has to do with workers whose behavior stretches if not breaks the bounds of normality as most of us understand it.

A blogger at "Untemplaters" writes:

"It’s really freaky how some people can completely change personalities from super manic to extremely apologetic within the same conversation. And it’s intimidating having someone start yelling over the phone over the smallest thing and hang up on you. And then other people are hypocritical or super quirky." 
In 1956 Gregory Bateson and his colleagues, working out of the VA Hospital in Palo Alto and Stanford University, theorized that schizophrenic symptoms could be the consequence of individuals having to deal with crazy behavior.

According to their theory, the person is "stuck" in the relationship, the message is contradictory, and they cannot talk back. This is called a "double bind" and it has three criteria:

  • Important To Stay Connected: The connection is "intense," meaning the person believes it is "vitally important that he discriminate accurately what sort of message is being communicated so that he may respond appropriately."
  • Contradictory orders: "The individual is caught in a situation in which the other person in the relationship is expressing two orders of message and one of these denies the other."
  • Can't talk back: "The individual is unable to comment on the messages being expressed to correct his discrimination of what order of message to respond to, i.e., he cannot make a metacommunicative statement."

One can easily see how this can happen in the workplace. Most people work because they need a job and therefore the relationship with one's supervisor is intense. They must understand what is wanted or be terminated. Imagine the distress if they are confronted with arbitrary orders or processes, and do not feel empowered to question or resolve them.

A related phenomenon is "learned helplessness," which may not appear as "crazy" but which nevertheless reflects the individual out of touch with the laws of cause and effect. Experiments with rats showed that when they received random shocks, they learned that trying made no sense.

Creatures with learned helplessness show evidence of depression, whether they are as big as a person or as little as a fly. (Yes, flies get depressed.)

People often question why sometimes it seems that workers act "lazy" or generally they want to know "why this organization can't seem to accomplish anything." If you really look at it, it is possible that the social structure, due to its contradictory demands, itself creates a kind of crazy. There are so many stakeholders, each with their own agenda, and the worker is caught in the middle. Lacking clear direction, or penalized without a clear cause and effect, they can and do break down, and become demoralized and disengaged.

There is a way out of this situation. One is to formally institutionalize structures within the organization that are dedicated to monitoring employee engagement and responding to their concerns. Examples include Google's "People Operations" department and Southwest Airlines' "Culture Committee."

Another, perhaps related way is for the organization to promote informal norms related to feedback. This has to do with righting a key aspect of the "crazy making" equation, the worker's inability to talk back. When the employee can reach out to other individuals within the organization, including their supervisors, to talk about seemingly contradictory demands, this alone can alleviate stress and return them to a calmer and more engaged state of functioning.

Every organization is composed of people, which means there will always be "assorted mixed nuts." The key to harmonizing them is to plan in advance for what happens when the cashews start going after the pecans.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Four Success Factors For The Human Economy

People want to do business with people they know, people who make them feel comfortable. Photo by José Maria Silveira Neto via Flickr. No endorsement for Heineken or any product expressed or implied.

The company of the future is Airbnb. Some high points from Thomas Friedman's article in The New York Times, 7/20/13:


  • Origin: Roommates desperate for cash rented out air mattresses in their apartment to people who were also desperate, to attend a 2007 conference. Read the story in their own words here
  • The Name: It stands for "Air Bed & Breakfast."
  • Success: Six years later, competing in the big leagues: As of July 12, 2013 they have 140,000 guests in 34,000 cities and 192 countries.

4 Success Factors That Translate More Broadly
  • Trust: Before Airbnb the concept of blindly renting a room out to a stranger, or of renting a room from one, was alien to most people. Yet as Friedman points out the founders created "a framework of trust" fueled by technology. Buyer and seller are not anonymous to each other and the rating system ensures that your reputation follows you for better or for worse.
  • Comprehensiveness: You can rent more than a room from AirBNB. There is a whole "ecosystem" of "ordinary people" who will take care of everything associated with rentals. This makes it easier for the customer to use the service.
  • Humanization: The customer does not deal with a nameless faceless corporation but rather another regular person just like themselves. It should be clear that this person is a brand -- that the future is about establishing one's personal reputation -- rather than acquiring any particular credential. This is especially true because it is almost impossible to be the best at anything. Friedman phrases this well: "In a world where, as I’ve argued, average is over — the skills required for any good job keep rising — a lot of people who might not be able to acquire those skills can still earn a good living now by building their own branded reputations, whether it is to rent their kids’ rooms, their cars or their power tools."
  • Customization: No two properties are the same, no two owners are the same, and so every journey is really a singular interaction -- a memory that cannot be replaced. 
All of these concepts together are really about something more than sharing - it's humanity. About getting back to a more natural way of life. One in which people do business with each other without having "Big (Corporate) Brother" get in the way. Cofounder Brian Chesky is quoted in the article:

“It used to be that corporations and brands had all the trust,” added Chesky, but now a total stranger, “can be trusted like a company and provide the services of a company. And once you unlock that idea, it is so much bigger than homes. ... There is a whole generation of people that don’t want everything mass produced. They want things that are unique and personal.”

If you have time, read the analysis in full. It is a prescient view into the future.

* As always all opinions my own.