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What I have been noticing series - by Stephen Yates - part one - When did a total stranger make your day?

The Oxford Group

30 May 2022

Introduction to "what I have been noticing" by Stephen Yates

As a curious facilitator and coach at The Oxford Group, I have always been interested in what makes us tick and the way we interact, connect and learn from each other (others might call it plain simple nosey). 

I have always spent time watching and listening to others, trying to understand how people make connections and how important they are to our identity and sense of being. 

It with this lens that following – and during the pandemic as we have all seen our lives shaken up - I have been even more curious about how we stay connected, learn and grow both in the workplace and personally. 

I have captured these observations in several quick reads, each with a different theme but always questioning and exploring the core elements that are essential to learning.  

I haven’t any answers, just reflections on what may or may not be missing in the new learning environment, as well as seeking to understand what makes learning memorable, fun and spontaneous. 

Part one - When did a total stranger make your day?  

The importance of re-creating the “weak ties” in our working lives 

  • Have you been into the office yet?  
  • Have you met face-to-face with your colleagues? 

If so, take a moment to reflect upon what happened when you were in front of real people, staring into their eyes (not a Zoom Screen), chatting about the journey, your breakfast or just watching and greeting others.  

I will come back to this in a moment. Let’s just take a moment to think what’s really going on for all of us right now and the conversation we are not having. 

What’s going on away from the screen? 

As a leader, team member or facilitator, your virtual meeting room has become the norm. 

You’ve done your preparation, placed a “do not disturb” on the door of your room and turned the camera on. 

People are squeezing in the session between back-to-back on-line meeting; sometimes leaving early to attend another meeting or pick up the kids. Often, they are not even looking at the preparation that you as a facilitator or manager have carefully designed and thought about months ago. 

As a “Head Of” you have never reached so many more people in so many global regions. 

Last week I went back to facilitating face-to-face for two days; I was buzzing from just buying a coffee at Pret, let alone being with real people. 

I noticed two key observations that started me on a journey of realising what is really missing - in what is now the norm of the virtual office - it is the lack of what are known as “weak ties” or “consequential strangers”. 

Firstly, I noticed the joy in participants’ faces – sharing coffee, talking about football and laughing spontaneously, without worrying that the dog, cat or camera had crashed in, on or off. You could touch the energy. Apparently, these elements of relationships are called “weak ties” (Mark S Granovettor – The Strength of Weak Ties – American Journal of Sociology 1973) the casual unplanned moments as well as the strangers we bump into on a daily basis in our work life. 

Secondly, I also noticed how whilst going into the office, should one choose to, one could speak to and avoid all human contact all day – people getting lunch on electronic screens with no staff, office workers sitting at the canteen with a plastic box of food, isolated and alone – whilst on the way out the office, an Amazon Fresh proudly announces, from what used to be a local Tesco, that you didn’t need to speak, touch or see anyone; just open your app and take your groceries with you. 

The question we really need to be exploring is: How can we create those weak ties that are essential for human growth and connection? 

So, what – the impact on a healthy workplace  

What is happening is we are missing those micro connections, the small and human elements that create learning events and if we are not careful learning will become just another meeting, another Zoom, if it hasn’t already. How can we create these in the virtual landscape? 

Why should we be bothered? 

As early as 1995, Baumeister and Leary identified, what we now call “Weak ties”, foster belongingness and purpose. Mariana von Mohr, Louise P. Kirsch and Aikaterini Fotopoulou published work (Royal Society Journal August 2021) during the pandemic identifying that it is not the deep longer-term relationships that create meaning but the “weak ties” that are proven to be more important. Think about when we meet a stranger – we have to make more effort, step outside our comfort zone and move into a more open and vulnerable yet oddly enough a safe space – after all what have you got to lose? 

How many times have you confessed deeply intimate thoughts and feelings to a total stranger with whom you have no connection yet strike up a deep and meaningful conversation? 

It’s this we are missing in the virtual landscape, the casual connections that have no real consequence yet seem to create an experience, and in fact our identity, that we all crave for. It’s what we know as the water cooler moments; the chatting to security on the reception or just coffee breaks during a workshop when we create real meaning. 

What is the conversation we are not having? 

As you reflect back on the recent workshop or meeting you ran face-to-face, what was different and how did that make you feel?  

The conversation we need to be having is how can we re-capture those weak ties, random bumping into each other that made the workplace purposeful? 

These casual moments are the ones we all remember; the funny stories, the random moment when they just stopped to listen or went off subject. 

Think about the most memorable workshops and meetings; did you remember the content or the experience? 

I remember a heated and funny discussion once blaming me, the facilitator, for Brexit and being rightly challenged for my lack of academic English knowledge yet being English! “You’re English, if you don’t know who will know?!” 

This is what we remember and creates engagement, and in my next short read I will explore the push/pull we have between content vs experience and how we can re-create bumping into one another. 

 

References and research  

Mark S Granovettor – The Strength of Weak Ties – American Journal of Sociology 1973   

https://snap.stanford.edu/class/cs224w-readings/granovetter73weakties.pdf  

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529. 

Making Casual Friends: The Importance of ‘Weak Ties’ – CCEDiversity 

Consequential strangers (The Benefits of Talking to Strangers - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

How does the strength of weak ties make you happier? The Happiness Experts Company  

How Does the Strength of Weak Ties Make You Happier? - YouTube