Human relations are important to the individual and society. As John Donne, the 17th-century English poet, wrote in the language of his time:
No man is an Island, intire of its selfe;
Every man is a peece of the Continent,
A part of the maine; …
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in Mankinde;
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.1
In The Different Drum, psychiatrist Scott Peck writes: “We are all, in reality, interdependent. Throughout the ages, the greatest leaders of all of the religions have taught us that the journey of growth is the path away from self-love, and toward a state of being in which our identity merges with that of humanity.”2 Effective leaders understand this idea fully and, at a basic level, feel connected with their fellow humans, care about the well-being of others, and relate effectively with people.
Consider the words of William Penn: I expect to pass through this life but once; therefore if there be any kindness I can show or any good thing I can do for any fellow being, let me do it now, not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
The Evolving Context of Human Relations
The leader today finds herself in a web of virtual relationships with customers and co-workers. The challenge is to maintain both a productive and humanistic work life in the face of virtuality problems such as these:
- None of the technologies of virtuality can currently carry a fraction of the whole range of communications that people use to relate to one another; intended meaning is lost.
- Virtual communications tend to be brief and intermittent, while long-lasting relationships based on trust and respect usually take time to develop.
- Virtual communications such as e-mail, teleconferences, and videoconferences may actually distract people from what is going on around them, so they are neither fully here nor fully there.
- Virtual communication works only when the party you desire to communicate with also uses it.
- Many e-communication users are overwhelmed by hundreds of messages each week, many of which are either unnecessary or irrelevant to the receiver.3
The successful leader recognizes the problems of virtuality but accepts the fact that electronic communication is a reality of modern organizational life and capitalizes on its strengths (speed, convenience, volume, cost, and so on). Effective leaders master changes in communication technology in the same manner that Franklin Roosevelt used the radio, John Kennedy used television, and Abraham Lincoln used photography. Lincoln's photos played up his hat, clothes, and beard to communicate an image of a "homespun" president the people could trust. Senior executive Charles Cianchette of the Cianbro Companies describes the importance of e-communication in today's world of work: Networking technologies allow companies to run cohesive yet decentralized operations in a fast and efficient manner.
Working from home or on the road is an accelerating trend partly because of a new demographic of younger workers who cannot imagine a world without Google, smart phones, social networking, and instant messaging. No previous generation of employees has grown up understanding, using, and expanding on such a pervasive instrument as the computer. Many people today conduct business via virtual offices on the Internet, working off their computers from wherever they happen to be.4
HiWired co-president Singu Srinivas advises a balanced approach: He believes online communication tools, such as chat and e-mail, should be used to enhance face-to-face relationships rather than replace them.5 Steve Jobs, despite being a master of the digital world, knew well its limitations. He believed passionately in the face-to-face meeting, saying, "There is a temptation in our networked age to think ideas can be developed by e-mail and iChat. That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say "wow," and soon you are cooking up all sorts of ideas."6
Although today's workplace has become more time-pressured, more mobile, less dependent on geography, and more reliant on technological competence, the successful leader recognizes the importance of preserving the "human moment at work." This can be done in three ways:
- Maintain high standards of written and spoken communication, as great letter writers and public speakers have always done.
- Engage in as much face time as possible to sustain satisfying and productive relationships. Exert the effort, pay the expense, and spend the time required.
- Keep in mind these three don'ts: Don't hide behind technology, don't use sarcastic or belittling statements, and don't forget it's recorded, as Facebook entries, tweets, blogs, and e-mail all affect reputations.7
- J. Donne, The Complete Poetry and Select Prose of John Donne (New York: Random House, 1941), 332.
- M. Peck, The Different Drum (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), p. 288.
M. Totty, "Rethinking the Inbox," The Wall Street Journal (March 26, 2007), http://onlinewsj.com.
T. Mackintosh, "Is This the Year You Move to a Virtual Office?" Accounting Technology (May 2007), http://find.galegroup.com; D. Tapscott and A. Williams, Wikinomics (New York: Penguin, 2006); and S. Ladika, "Socially Evolved," Workforce Management (September 2010), pp. 18-22.
- M. Richtel, "Lost in E-mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast," The New York Times (June 14, 2008).
- W. Isaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), p. 431; and B. Baltes et al., "Computer-Mediated Communication and Group Decision-Making, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 87(January 2002), pp. 156-179; see also D. Rock, Your Brain at Work (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), pp. 159-161.
- K. Byron and D. Baldridge, "Toward a Model of Nonverbal Cues and Emotion in E-mails," Academy of Management, OCIS (2005), p. B1; B. Avolio et al., "E-leading in Organizations," Leadership Quarterly 11 (2000), pp. 615-70; and W. Casco, "The Virtual Organization," C. Cooper and W. Burke, eds., The New World of Work (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2002), 203-21.