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OPINION7 January 2016

It’s back to work but don’t lose that festive warmth

Opinion UK

Technology has brought us many advancements in the workplace but the need for genuine, face-to-face interactions are vital for strong relationships says Paul Tredwell.

Someone once confronted me with the assertion that ‘life is not a popularity contest’. And, of course, this is true – it isn’t. But, equally, success in life cannot be defined by Machiavelli’s conclusion that ‘it is much safer to be feared than loved’.

Experts in behavioural science have provided evidence that the reliably universal dimensions of social judgement are both strength/competence (so Machiavelli was partly right) and warmth. Indications, though, are that warmth judgements take precedence.

In our ancestral encounters with strangers we first needed to determine their intentions, then their ability to act on those intentions. The primacy of warmth was therefore telling in those early games of survival. And, back to relationships in 2016, beginning with intelligent geniality can be the best way to establish trust with credible support for the view that warmth is the conduit of influence.

In the long, dark days of January the demands of accountability can weigh heavy with a focus exclusively upon understanding business needs and delivering against them at a profit. In these circumstances the personal aspects of a fully functioning relationship can sometimes be overlooked. Rounded relationship behaviour, knowing your clients personally as well as professionally, is a major driver of a successful enterprise with face-to-face communication performing an essential role.

Despite the compelling commercial temptation to prioritise virtual meetings there remains a killer combination of research and common sense which supports the power of actual, real-life contact. Consider the value of non-verbal cues, the comfort of judging other people’s skills while in the same room and the unexpected upside of off-piste discussions which arise simply because rapport and common ground have been established.

There is no room for complacency, however. Appearing on Radio Four’s Today Programme last year, psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist referred to a meeting he had attended where a teacher of five- to seven-year-olds reported that she and her colleagues were now needing to explain to their pupils how to read the human face, something which had never been required in the past.

According to Dr McGilchrist, there is solid evidence that children are less empathetic than they were 40 years ago and, to quote him: “As a society, we are replicating more and more aspects of what we might call autism.”

This phenomenon is supported by a UCLA psychology study, published in 2014, which suggests that children’s social skills are declining, with decreased sensitivity to emotional cues, as they have less face-to-face interaction due to increased use of digital media and limited device-free time.

Therefore, while adults still recognise the value of face-to-face communication, younger children may be struggling to conduct it effectively. Do we have an emerging problem here, especially when the pressure on resources within the workplace is taken into account? Imagine future generations with neither the ability to participate fully in face-to-face interaction nor the time or support within the working day to develop, practise and perfect the required skills.

This needs to be considered in good time before unwelcome consequences reveal themselves. And, more broadly, as we embark upon another challenging year, the personal aspects of success in business (and life) need to be afforded their rightful significance.

In a digital world the classic verities of relationships have never been more important, bringing clarity and cut through to the bewildering range of choices we need to make on a daily basis. And when we reflect on or establish these relationships we look for warmth and competence, beginning with warmth.

This is not just a nostalgic plea. It is how business gets done, now and always.

Paul Tredwell is director of Bigfoot Consulting

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