Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today's Challenges from Around the Globe

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The Power of Conversations and Physical (Not Social) Distancing

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(29 April 2020)

by Douglas Lindsay, Executive Editor, Journal of Character and Leadership Development, United States Air Force Academy, USA and James "Jimmy" Dobbs, Dean, United States Air Force Academy Preparatory School, USA

It is interesting how a term can catch on so quickly. Several months ago, if someone had mentioned social distancing, it likely would have been met with a curious look or predictable questions (e.g., What?). Fast forward to today, and it has become part of our lexicon.

Words are powerful, yet they can create scaffolding that is limiting. While most people understand the intent of reducing the COVID-19 risk through "social distancing," the intended application of this term doesn't align with its precise definition. Social distancing is the extent to which individuals or groups are removed from or excluded from participating in one another's lives. A more precise term to explain the intent is proximal or physical distancing between people. This might seem like a small matter, but what we know about language is that the actual words do matter, and specific words have power. When it comes to communication, there are no small matters.

Research tells us that it is not just what is actually said, there are a host of other factors that influence communication like contextual cues, presence, tone, etc. In light of current events, where most of us are being called to work at a distance (actual physical distancing), it is important for us to mindfully contemplate these seemingly small matters. We say "seemingly" somewhat tongue in cheek, because while they may not seem like big issues, the reality is that they are magnified exponentially given the current circumstances. For example, no one would suggest limiting our social interactions at a time like this. In fact, due to our physical separation, one could suggest that our social connections are needed now more than ever. It is important to get this right as it has significant effects.

The reason these words matter is because they are part of our larger conversations and the overall messages we send. In a traditional work setting, conversations occur as part of our daily routines. They occur in meetings, offices, hallways, break rooms, but especially in impromptu moments. This is a part of our routine. Our way of doing work. However, when we are put in situations where we are physically limited, conversations become much more intentional. Stopping by someone's office to chat isn't possible. A chance meeting in the hallway isn't going to occur. So, we need to be more intentional about how we are going to have the conversations that are needed. We need to get and share information, discuss options, etc. These are a part of work.

As leaders, there are other conversations that we NEED to have with those that work for us and around us. These conversations help link us together. They help us understand and connect with those we work with on a deeper more relational level to see what is really going on. To find out how people are feeling. To understand what is bothering them. How we as leaders can support them. In a dispersed, physically limited situation, it is easy to miss these opportunities. We have to be intentional about them. We must not get caught up in our physical distance and forget these critical social aspects we value at work. If we do, this can lead to disengagement and a feeling of isolation for our teammates and employees. This can hinder our ability to effectively function as people and organizations.

As leaders, we MUST understand that the power of our conversations goes well beyond the basic communication of ideas, intent, or expected behavior. It is much deeper than that. It is about making a connection, showing value, fostering transparency, and giving time. What we know about effective leaders is that they take the time to engage in, and put a priority on these types of conversations.

What we often fail to realize in the busyness of everyday life, is the profound impact a conversation can have. It is often only upon reflection, if we allow ourselves that opportunity, where we synthesize and really understand the influence and impact of those conversations. The interesting thing about conversations is that they deferentially impact both parties. If we view this from a leadership perspective, it can have important implications. For example, let's say that a leader is walking down the hallway and passes one of their team members. The communication that occurs (and occurs even without words) will have various implications and impact. If the leader walks by and says nothing or fails to acknowledge the individual, a message is conveyed. If the leader acknowledges the individual, a different message is conveyed. Finally, if the leader stops to engage the individual, even for a brief conversation, that results in a different message.

The important thing for leaders, and those learning about leadership, is that in all three cases, a message is conveyed to the follower that is directly influenced by the leader. When we look at our current physical distancing environment, there are other types of behaviors that can have the same impact. Do we respond to the email that was sent? Do we reach out to see how the team is doing? What does our new schedule look like since we can't gather together physically at the same time? How are we as leaders thinking about how our team is doing and engaging with work in new ways? How do we know what our employees need?

While leaders cannot always control how the message is perceived, they do have more of an impact than they may first realize. When we understand that leadership is about relationships, and conversation is a way to grow and develop those relationships, the potential to influence is significant. This influence can be magnified as the levels between the employee and the leader increase. In an organization where there are few employees and the leader is seen on nearly a daily basis, conversations are more frequent and possible. The employee also has access to a wider range of leader interactions and behaviors where they can directly experience the leader and their leadership.

However, in hierarchical organizations (or those limited by physical distancing) it is quite common for an employee to rarely see those higher up (even a level or two) in the leadership structure, due to factors such as protocol and distance. In these cases, the conversations that a leader has with employees further down in the organization can be magnified. What we mean is that if their experiences with a leader are limited to a few short interactions, it is possible for them to draw inaccurate conclusions of what the leader is like based on those few interactions. Even short conversations between leaders and followers can have lasting effects that impact the leader/follower relationship.

What conversations are you currently having with your team? How are you compensating for the physical distancing? How is your team mitigating this challenge? Better yet, how are you as a leader re-framing this challenge into new opportunities to connect with others?

While one way of looking at our current context is to see the new barriers in place, another way of viewing it is as an opportunity to intentionally connect with others in ways that previously weren't considered. We would like to suggest that as a leader, a key way to navigate current and uncertain times is to be intentional in seeking impactful conversations when it is needed more than ever before.

*Note: This article reflects some material that was published in an article by Douglas Lindsay in the Journal of Character & Leadership Development.

Douglas Lindsay Douglas Lindsay, PhD, is the Executive Editor of the Journal of Character and Leadership Development published at the United States Air Force Academy, a Professor at several institutions, and does leadership development work through his own company. Doug spent the first part of this professional career as an officer in the United States Air Force where he held several leadership positions and has presented and published over 125 works on leadership and leader development.


James Dobbs Dr. James M. Dobbs is the Dean of the United States Air Force Academy Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of San Diego in leadership studies and a Master in Arts degree in counseling and human services from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. His research and writing addresses leadership development and self-awareness, toxic leadership, and cynicism. He has taught courses in leadership, ethics, strategic management, and organizational behavior.


Both Doug and James are members of the ILA.

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