The Power of Proximity: Why “Up Close and Personal” is The Best Leadership Strategy In Complicated Times

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The Power of Proximity is not about whether we’re in the office. It has nothing to do with remote work or geographic location. It’s the power of being close to the people you’re leading and the issues they’re facing – and avoiding the arms-length orientation that Zoom and Slack tend to lead us towards. The Power of Proximity is about the quality of interaction.

Through my work with many executives, I see that we’re still in a “remote orientation.” It’s the sometimes risky but always subtle avoidance of getting up close and personal with people and the issues they’re facing — it’s the easy choice to use technology instead. As a C-suite coach, I often help my clients untangle complex situations and issues, and more often than not, I notice that the roots of those issues are often about misunderstanding, with executives operating with different or incomplete data. It’s simply a missed connection at some point. Often those “misses” started with an email or a text that simply should have been a direct conversation.

The essence of effective leadership is the ability to influence outcomes through interaction. But with busy schedules, we shoot off texts before a plane takes off and hold 30-minute meetings (that more often than not are 20 minutes by the time people get off other Zoom calls and re-orient themselves). Working this way, we think we are being efficient, but we often don’t give issues the time and space and quality of interaction they need to be resolved conclusively and effectively. So, those issues persist. Or worse, they become critical, when a one-hour in-person meeting with the right people would have been a perfect fix.

The reason the Power of Proximity matters is best illustrated by a recent experience of a CEO I coach. He was facing a complex, high-risk situation and tried to resolve it over Slack. The CEO felt he had given a clear sense of the imperative over that medium. But the overwhelm of the executives he was communicating with saw the ball dropped on the issue and there wasn’t a timely resolution. The business suffered a significant financial impact.

This could have been avoided had they switched modes. Slack is not for the resolution of critical, complicated issues — it’s best for organizing threads of communication. Email is also not for complicated problem resolution. Zoom is the next best solution for being up close and personal. But nothing beats spending time with a person, face-to-face, really listening to the issue, and then taking the time to resolve it. That is the Power of Proximity.

It’s not necessary for every situation. But if the issue is complex, emotions are intense or high, and there is a significant risk for negative impact, proximity is the best strategy. Here are some lessons from this example that might be valuable for all of us going forward:

  1. Match the criticality to the medium. As I said above, if it’s a critical issue, it should be resolved in person and it should get the time it deserves – I often say “you can’t listen faster”
  2. Notice that your desire for quick resolution doesn’t always line up with the needs of the situation. Sometimes it is better to move slow, especially if there are multiple people and multiple perspectives involved.
  3. Don’t be afraid to move outside of “normal work mode.” Meaning, go for a walk, go for dinner, go to someone’s home, and take the time to sit there and be with them.

In the first point, there’s an echo of how Dropbox has been thinking about the future of work which we highlighted in a blog earlier this year. In trying to rationalize the number of meetings hitting everyone’s schedule, Dropbox advocated thinking about Type 1 and Type 2 decisions (a distinction Jeff Bezos first described in an Amazon shareholder letter back in 1997). If it’s mission-critical, strategic, irreversible, or sensitive, it’s a Type 1 issue and decision — it’s simple, you need to meet. Everything else is Type 2. Where Dropbox and I part ways, is they are aiming to be a fully virtual business, so meetings happen over Zoom or Teams.

When we think about email, messaging or video technologies, or even SMS/text, I think it’s best to see them as accelerants. They are truly transformative tools that give immediacy to what was previously slow and cumbersome: team collaboration over distance, instant communication with either distributed individuals or teams, organization of serial messages into logical groupings.

But I believe what Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964 about the “medium is the message” holds true today. The medium through which we receive a message shapes our perception of its value. Inevitably, our perception of the weight of digital messages is shaped by the simple fact we have a delete or mute button, or can simply switch tabs (or even devices) to read something else. We’re empowered to vary our attention as we wish — or pay no attention at all.

Yet if you put me in a room with someone, I believe the Power of Proximity does more than match the immediacy of digital communication. It invites a shared emotional, sensory, and cognitive engagement. If as leaders we need attention to lead to action, we need to know that we’ve been heard and understood. The Power of Proximity provides that instant, observable, feedback loop. When you are close to the issue and the people involved, you also get “data” that can make the difference between a fast, but poor quality decision or a slower, but fundamentally higher quality decision – and decision quality is a key driver of sustained business performance.

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