This is a blog series on social isolation and how leaders need to pay attention and build community as a result. In a previous blog, I shared a quote from Thomas Friedman’s latest book Thank You For Being Late: Friedman asked Surgeon General Murthy what was the biggest disease in America today. Without hesitation, he answered, “It’s not cancer. It’s not heart disease. It’s social isolation. It is the pronounced isolation that so many people are experiencing that is the great pathology of our lives today.”
For a holiday gift, our sons gave us “Alexa” from Amazon. Technically, it is an Amazon Echo–a voice-activated sound system, but we just call her Alexa. She tells us the weather, plays various stations, and can even tell us who won the ballgame. Supposedly, if you can search for it on Google or Amazon, Alexa can find it and tell us. We are getting used to asking Alexa questions and she gives us the answers.
This reminds me of a movie a few years ago titled Her where a man falls in love with a woman who is really the voice of a computer operating system. But the movie reflects how people are lonely and looking for attention, companionship, and someone who will listen to them. The movie illustrates so well how people can become socially isolated and use technology to make them feel less lonely.
In my book Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts, I describe several ways leaders build community in the workplace. Since leadership is more about relationships than title or position, the best place to start is with practicing One-on-One. This consists of a 30-60 minute “meeting” designed to peel away layers that separate us in casual conversations. The idea is to discover another person by finding out who they are, what matters to them, and what motivates them while listening for talents, interests, passions, and frustrations. Even the concept of setting up a meeting just to get to know someone can be uncomfortable. But it is an extremely effective way to build relationships. Call it old-fashioned dating, but it works.
The focus in a One-on-One is probing not prying. It emphasizes why questions not what and how. It is to listen for stories, not give advice or make decisions. Everyone has a story to tell and it is a great investment of time and energy to give people time to tell their story and to listen to their stories. Another one of my sages says: “Facts illustrate and stories illuminate.”
One way to do this is to start and end meetings with stories. Start each meeting with a story “check in.” Ask people to spend one to two minutes sharing a personal story. Leave it open and flexible so that people feel comfortable sharing. At the end of the meeting, close with a “check out” such as: What did you learn? What are you personally taking out of this meeting? What will you do with that you learned?
Building a sense of community is so important because it is hard to trust people you don’t know. So getting to know people is critical. People feel safe when they know each other better. One way to start getting to know people is to look around at their office space. People tend to fill their space with their “stories” (photos, mementos, plaques) so that we might ask about them. When we ask them to explain the significance, we find connections and threads of commonality among us. We need to take the time to listen to these stories and discover common ground.
If most people are lonely and feeling socially isolated, then making time to build community is important. Last week, my husband’s office had a bowling party for employees and significant others. It is a low-risk way to have fun, be active, and get to know people better and in an informal setting with no expectations. Thank goodness because I had a few gutter balls! They have a quarterly outing that is planned by employees. This is just another way to build community.
What practices do you use to build community?
Are you taking the time to listen to the stories of people with whom you work? Care about?
How are you sharing your story with others?