by Glenn Llopis
Republished from Forbes, March 4, 2017
The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer doesn’t mince words: “trust is in crisis.” Across the board and around the world, the general population’s trust in our biggest institutions – including business – is down.
So it’s no wonder that by far the top things organizations ask me to solve for when they seek my leadership expertise are trust and engagement. I’ve learned from years of research that what they’re actually seeking is to create an environment of greater intimacy. The lack of trust and engagement happens because leaders are not intimate enough with the workplace and the people who touch the business. They fail to connect with the business at a level where they understand what’s needed for the business, the brand and the people to evolve.
There’s a certain safety (and distance) in saying you want to cultivate trust and engagement, because those are things that leaders can look for in their employees. To cultivate intimacy, on the other hand, puts the onus on the leaders themselves. It’s a way of taking a step back and asking: what will actually result in more trust and engagement? The answer is intimacy. Leaders who develop intimacy build trust by developing relationships with their people and placing employees at the center of an organization’s growth strategy.
But what is intimacy in a workplace? What does it look like?
Steelcase has an intriguing answer to that question.
I talked with Steelcase CEO Jim Keane and Steelcase senior design researcher Patricia Kammer about two big initiatives the company undertook over the past several years: first, extensive research about typical day-to-day experiences of top executives; second, a reorganization of their own corporate headquarters, based on that research.
After our conversation I’m convinced that one of the ways leaders can cultivate intimacy is to design for it.
The Link Between Intimacy And Trust
Trust in the workplace is more than just the belief that your company and its leaders are honest and reliable. It’s more than seeing phrases like respect each other and we value people in the mission statement.
Why do so many leaders and organizations fail to understand this? Because they aren’t listening. Employees are looking for deeper connection to what they are doing and from their leaders.
When Keane told me what he had wanted to accomplish back when he was first named CEO, he said two things that struck a chord with me: “I wanted to be able to listen to what people are saying, and I wanted to know how they feel.”
Those are two things that build intimacy.
The results of Kammer’s study gave the Steelcase team a starting point. She led a team of researchers who observed the day-to-day experiences of top executives and their administrative staff from more than 20 companies across North America and Europe over two years. They found that the typical corner office approach to leadership space actually hindered the ability to lead: undermining a free-flowing exchange of ideas; acting as a barrier that isolates leaders from getting their fingers on the pulse of the organization; and reinforcing hierarchy and a top-down power structure. See the report (“The New Leader – Breeding Agility”) for more detail.
Steelcase developed a set of principles to guide organizations to design their office environments in ways that help leaders deal with these and other challenges. Then Steelcase took it one step further and redesigned its own leadership space, based on those principles.
Kammer noted the power of thoughtful design: “Space is a key component to affecting culture and shaping behavior.”
There’s a lot of great insight to digest in the report, but I’ll focus on the principle that most directly enables the ability to design space in a way that will encourage the kind of intimacy that can build trust and engagement in an organization. The principle: space as synapse. As described in the report: “Leadership spaces can be designed to help facilitate better connections between people and information.”
When considering his own space, Keane didn’t just want to think about the furniture. He wanted to question everything: “Maybe we’re in the wrong location, maybe we’re on the wrong floor, maybe we’re in the wrong building.”
Keane and his team seized on an opportunity previously unseen – an opportunity to replace traditional models that promote a top-down, hierarchical, departmental, siloed, one-size-fits-all mentality. They moved the leadership space to put it right in the middle of the action. The executive team is now on the main floor, and the primary walkway of the building goes right through their space. Employees are encouraged to use meeting areas within the leadership space, use individual workspaces, or have informal gatherings there.
Designing For Listening
Keane said one of his primary objectives was to listen more, so leaders could move away from making decisions themselves and instead think of themselves as curators of culture – shaping an organization that helps other people make better decisions. A big part of that, according to Keane, was relying less on the hierarchy to move information up and down, but instead putting leaders in a place where they can hear what’s going on directly.
“Having the main aisle go right through the middle of our space, I now see people all the time who I never would have seen before,” said Keane. “Whether it’s just grabbing a cup of coffee or bumping into them in the hallway, I can get a sense of how things are going for them.”
Designing For Frequency Of Face-To-Face
We need to connect to see people again. Our businesses have been suffering from this disconnect for too long. But it’s not just face-to-face that matters, is the frequency of it that develops intimacy.
To that end, Steelcase increased the density of its leadership space so leaders are closer together, less separated by walls, and less separated by assistants – creating much more face-to-face contact with people coming and going.
They based this strategy on the work of Dr. Karen Stephenson, a corporate anthropologist who talks about increasing trust through the frequency of face-to-face interaction. Keane summarized what he learned from her this way: “If you and I were in a meeting for an hour, we would develop [a certain level of trust]. But if we could be together once a day for five minutes each over 12 days – we would develop more trust in the second way than the first. It’s 60 minutes both ways, but there’s something about the frequency of face to face.”
The problem is that most organizations are designed for 60-minute meetings, with conference rooms and private offices. If you want to discourage long meetings and encourage short interactions, the Steelcase report suggests designing the space with a range of owned and shared spaces in a crossroads to encourage serendipitous interactions between leaders and employees. Do this not because you’ll have better meetings, but because you’ll have more interaction, which will lead to more trust.
Designing For Alignment
Trust requires alignment, not just connection. Perceptions and expectations between employees and leaders must be aligned, to strengthen belief in the company’s mission and trust in leadership.
Keane stressed the important role space can play in this equation. He gave the example of a hypothetical CEO telling employees at a town hall that “in order to be more innovative we have to move from being hierarchical to a meritocracy.” After hearing the CEO praise meritocracy, each employee returns to his or her desk – the size and location of which is based on paygrade.
In that example, “there’s a disconnect and a lack of authenticity between the verbal language and the body language of the organization,” said Keane.
A Generous Purpose
For an organization to evolve and grow, leaders must move people from the fringe of organizational development objectives to the center of their enterprise-wide strategy. That’s when real growth happens. We usually talk about putting people at the center in a figurative sense, but Steelcase has accomplished this quite literally.
This kind of intimacy requires a level of generosity on the part of leaders. Those who lead with a generous purpose are genuine about making their employees feel valued, because they see it as not only the right thing to do, but also a competitive advantage.
This is the kind of evolution that leads to reinvention and growth. This is the kind of thinking that embraces the innovation mentality.