Acknowledging Each Other Authentically in Accelerated Times
Umbuntu, derived from Bantu, a southern African language, relates to a Zulu concept – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu -, which means, “A person is only a person through other people.”
The themes of my columns are often related to the implications of the pace at which we are living our lives and its impact on human relationships. More often than not, we are pressed for time, moving from one meeting or commitment to another without the opportunity to breathe and acknowledge ourselves, no less others. Whether it is a face-to-face encounter or through the written word, we are often starting in mid-thought, ready to move on to the next one, forsaking the moment to just pause and reflect and notice the other.
There are many philosophers and religious leaders who speak about the importance of acknowledging the other. Desmond Tutu suggests that a proper self-assurance comes from knowing one belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished. Martin Buber, a well-known philosopher, wrote that it is in the encounter with the other that we feel fully human and whole. So what do we create in the moment of greeting another – and what do we miss when we pass that moment by?
Central to my work is helping clients foster an inclusive culture, one in which each person, each member feels acknowledged, feels as if they matter. One of my early mentors in the field taught me to start each meeting with people saying hello to each other. I continue to be impressed at how powerful this simple ritual can be with a group of people who work together.
Saying hello seems like a simple obvious. Yet the absence of being acknowledged – for some more than others – is something people experience in their daily lives at the workplace.
“People pass each other in the hallways and don’t acknowledge each other.”
“Is that true of everyone?” I respond.
“Well, some people say hello – it is mostly people in senior leadership who ignore us.”
However, when I talk with senior leaders they pause and often counter:
“I try to acknowledge people, but most of the time I am thinking about what I am doing or where I am going – I don’t mean to slight anyone.”
Others are more forthright about their frustration:
“Why do people have to be so sensitive? It is not personal!
“I happen to be very introverted – it is hard for me to acknowledge everyone”
So what is the real issue here? I would like to suggest that it is more than just “saying hello.” Social greetings carry all sorts of implications depending on the implicit or explicit positions attributed to those involved. Depending of perceived relative social power, the presence and absence of a greeting says volumes. We are also more likely to notice when we are not acknowledged than when we are not acknowledging.
Acknowledging each other is more thank an interpersonal issue. Our work environments are defined by how people relate to each other. In some instances people turn on and off good manners depending on the relative position or value they place on the other be it face to face, on the other end of a phone line or in an email message. .
Saying hello, acknowledging people can have a powerful impact on the culture of an organization as patterns and norms of how people greet each other ingrained in the culture of the organization. When I am working with clients, who are committed to fostering more inclusive work environments, we typically create a list of behaviors that foster inclusion. Greeting each other authentically is often at the top of the list.
So what can we do to foster a more inclusive environment where we work and with the people we work with – our customers and clients. Each of us can begin by noticing our own habits and begin to ask ourselves some questions. For example,
- Who do I acknowledge and whom do I just pass by?
- When do I feel slighted? Am I personalizing this when it may not be about me?
- What is the story I am making up about this interaction and how might my interpretation change if I broadened my perspective?
- How is my reaction influenced by perceived power dynamics?
- What might be going on for the other person? How might the situation change if I shifted my focus from what I am feeling to what someone else might be experiencing?
Consider not only your own responses but your position of perceived relative power and influence. It is essential that you ask: What does the work community require of me? Regardless of your personal style and preferences, as leaders, you are required to operate beyond comfort zone when it comes to acknowledging others.
Finally, create the opportunity for a conversation about the importance of acknowledging each other. Ritualize this by taking a few minutes at the start of each meeting for a brief “check-in” and at the end of the meeting for a “check-out.”
Greeting others authentically is more than a rule to follow; it elevates relationships between the greeter and the one being greeted. and strengthens the work community. We each become fuller people when we are open and available to others.