Suitable personal protective equipment to shake hands

Remember handshakes? They were an archaic work and social practice which disappeared in early 2020. Signalling respect, offering a peaceful intent and acknowledging agreement, they formed a peaceful symbol of connection in a busy world.

Connection matters

The handshake may be gone (forever) along with physical offices, indoor meetings and conferences, but connection between people remains important. We wave on our video conferences in an effort to signal similar recognition of others and to create the same sense of closure that handshakes offered.

My approach to collaboration and future of work practices begins with connection because it is a step that is surprisingly often overlooked. People assume that gathering people creates connection. Nothing could be further from the truth. Connection is what breaks down the barriers to people working together. Until we help teams address misalignment, fear, distrust and lack of shared norms, there will be no effective progress. Technology or wondrous adoption approaches will never overcome interpersonal group dysfunction.

The Connection in a Handshake

Reflect for a minute on what a handshake offers:

  • Respect: Recognition of the other as an individual
  • Sign of peace: No reason to fear an open hand offered in peace
  • Alignment: confirming agreements. We are in this together with shared intent.
  • Norms: the handshake itself sits in a context of social norms and practising a handshake reinforces shared group norms. These norms were why we all ended up in accidental handshakes back in February when we weren’t locked down

When we want to establish a new group, new project, new collaboration or any other form of shared work, we need to start with the elements of a handshake.

  • Respect: Is the environment one that will recognise individuals, respect their differences and allow them to share their potential? Are the people chosen with this respect?
  • Psychological Safety: Have we removed unnecessary and unhelpful fear and uncertainty that we can so that people can contribute freely?
  • Alignment: Does everyone understand why the group and they are there? Have they agreed to participate for those goals? Is there shared visions of success?
  • Norms and Governance: Are the ground rules of the work as a group clear and agreed by all involved.

There is a strong theme of participation, agency and agreement in these elements. Each individual must choose and acknowledge the shared efforts. We need to align the collective and the individual. If you have ever tried to shake an unwilling hand, you will know it is a clunky and uncomfortable experience that does nobody any good.

Many people seek to skip over the stages of forming connection. Some don’t respect the participants and see them merely as widgets in a larger plan. Some fear the storming and norming phases of team building and establishment of norms. Others prefer to retain an absolute say over goals, or to retain fear and control. Far too many organisations take norms for granted or assume that they can be imposed as ‘standard ground rules’ without explanation or practice. Any time saved skipping these ‘soft & messy’ steps leads to significantly larger delay, confusion and failure later.

We may not shake hands again soon. However, ensure that every collaboration, project or new future of work practice considers the value of connection up front. Your work will be better and more valuable for the time invested.

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