The word “intimacy” carries a lot of baggage. When I suggested a keynote speech topic on the importance of intimacy in the workplace, my speaking agency said they loved it, but nixed the title “Intimacy” because it felt too touchy-feely. They believed “Creating Connection” would convey the importance of closeness and bonding but not strike fear in the hearts of CEOs. But why is intimacy so very uncomfortable — particularly in business?
Advanced leaders realize the importance of intimacy, with a goal of creating a second family in the workplace. A sense of intimacy among colleagues may lead to higher productivity, creativity, emotional well-being and commitment to the central mission, according to a story in Psychology Today. It can help break down silos and foster collaboration. But creating this kind of organizational culture can be difficult.
Intimacy begins to surface when you allow yourself to truly be seen by someone else. That means being willing to expose yourself and your vulnerabilities. That means being open to sharing the good, the bad and sometimes even the ugly. The more you expose yourself the more information people have to use against you.
It also means a higher probability of rejection and painful feelings.
It’s hard to create deep bonds in the workplace, because it is fraught with power struggles, political dynamics to be navigated, opposing agendas and hierarchical structures that create artificial divisions among team members, not to mention the threat of lawsuits. There are lines of authority and competition among employees for resources, time, attention and limited positions for advancement. We can’t reveal our true selves because revealing weaknesses might limit our professional opportunities and financial success. As a result, we keep each other separate.
If the goal of effective team building is to create a sense of intimacy among employees, it must be more than memo-mandated bonding sessions and scheduled lunchroom socializing. It must come from shared experiences and time made for sharing genuine personal moments.
In 2018, I had joined the class of a local American Leadership Forum chapter. ALF is a nonprofit organization “dedicated to building stronger communities by uniting and strengthening diverse leaders to serve the common good.” This is done through an annual, one-year leadership development program made up of a few dozen community leaders.
I expected an opportunity to network, a rigorous curriculum and perhaps some bonding. What I didn’t expect was the deep intimacy that developed overnight with 26 others. Through thoughtful facilitation and carefully crafted curriculum, ALF created an environment in which 27 strangers could fall deeply in love with each other. It sounds touchy-feely, but the sentiment was not fabricated. CEOs, elected officials, business owners and nonprofit leaders came together for a two-day retreat as strangers and left as confidantes.
It happened through a series of conversations in which we exposed our vulnerabilities, discussed our true selves and did not talk shop. In fact, we were specifically instructed not to mention our work when introducing ourselves. It was the focus on our personal lives and a willingness to be real (and raw) that created the intimacy we felt.
One of the most common complaints leaders have is about the lack of collaboration and communication. Creating a culture of intimacy might be the solution.
How can organizations build more intimacy?
- It starts at the top. Leaders have to be willing to open up to demonstrate the behavior they expect from their employees.
- Invest in team building, not team socializing. Team building means facilitated sessions aimed at building trust and creating shared experiences and understanding. And doing so off-site helps create a new environment in which friendships can start to form.
- Push the envelope. Leaders need to be willing to move past the initial discomfort of and resistance toward intimacy. This also means being cognizant of oversharing and not pushing an intimacy agenda on employees who are not ready.
- Communicate openly. Create a culture in which you and employees are willing to express each others boundaries.
- Discuss the culture you want. The first step is an awareness of the existing culture and the future ideal culture, which may involve more of a focus on relationships.
- Spend time with each other. The water cooler conversations only build intimacy so much. Taking time to really connect, even during work hours, should be considered part of the work.
Some readers may be very uncomfortable with the idea of intimacy in the workplace, which brings us back to my original question: Why does it make us so uncomfortable? Perhaps the solution is simply to use another word, as my speaking agent suggested. If we focus on “creating connection,” then perhaps there will be less resistance. Because, ultimately, whether you call it intimacy or connection, the goal is coworkers who trust each other. That trust leads to productivity, collaboration and innovation.
Whether due to toxic culture, ineffective leadership, poor results from an employee engagement survey, lack of trust or high levels of attrition, many organizations will find themselves asking how to strategize culture change at some point. But even the most well-crafted strategy is no match for entrenched cultural norms. As the popular saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Ending generational categorization and judgment begins with awareness. Next time you hear generational stereotypes among your friends or in your workplace, speak up! By breaking down these stereotypes we can overcome the discrimination that generational labels facilitates.