Is touch – physical and emotional – a taboo subject in organisations? Why are we so sensitive about it? What is about things “touchy-feely” that seem to make people well, touchy?
I recorded this podcast earlier today with Patrick Lambe and Mark Earls. Patrick wrote a provocative post on the subject a few weeks ago and I wanted to explore this further.
We managed to get into a discussion about lots of things from the tragic to the comic, the latter in the form of a riff on the lessons for management of Dad’s Army. No firm conclusions reached, needless to say, but several hobby horses ridden and hopefully ideas provoked for you.
Patrick emphasises how controversial touch is, and suggests that some people just don’t like it. (We missed the now-obvious Dad’s Army link to Corporal Jones’ “they don’t like it up ’em”). Reflecting on this I’d probably make it about how we are willing to be touched than a blanket do-or-don’t, but not sure Patrick would agree.
Anyway, hope you find it interesting and all feedback welcome.
Download the Podcast – 27m – MP3 (9 MB)
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Here are the show notes with my usual health warning: Timings are approximate and this is my paraphrasing of what was said. Don’t take them it too literally.
0 45 Patrick explains why he wrote about touch in the first place: how knowledge management tends to autism, stripping context and emotion out of human organisation. The case of Victoria Climbie, how government agencies consistently failed to organise a response to the abuse people could see at a personal level. Also recent experiences of how a client responded uncomfortably to handshakes. Organisations seem to avoid touch, and knowledge management is seen as a very rational, disembodied thing.
3 30 Dangers of missing context when thinking about knowledge, eg the emotional context that often drives the process.
4 10 Johnnie contrasts work meetings with friends from social networks – warmer, less linear – and others in more formal organisational settings, which are less warm, apparently more strictly on-topic, but less productive.
6 10 Patrick and Johnnie talk about the word “autistic” to describe how some meetings operate when the sense of contact is missing.
6 40 Mark joins in. “We’re scared of what it is to be human in organisations… scared to realise that what we do together is rather more than the bits of information in our heads and the grand abstract ideas we have, and it’s rather more to do with just the day-to-day interaction with folk” Touching a really important part of our humanity. Autistic a really useful metaphor.
7 20 Patrick raises Dunbar’s idea of language’s origins in social grooming. Mark joins in on this – it’s why so little of what we say is responsible for the meaning that the listener takes from it.
8 35 Patrick talks about the comments his post received, found them polarised: “That’s pretty much how touch works, you either like it or you don’t like it… you don’t feel neutral about touch.” You can fake your language but it’s harder to fake your touch.
9 45 Mark: some people would really like to reduce the messiness of human interaction, “ideally to ones and zeroes… because it reduces all ambiguity and all personal risk…” Patrick: and corporates like it because it makes people interchangeable.
10 30 Mark: Most business thinking goes back 100 years to the age of the machine. People find it hard to let go of those ideas which see humans as fundamentally untrustworthy.
11 05 Johnnie: how people are reluctant to own their own response to touch, and prefer instead to moralise about “how things are done round here”. That moralising means we lose touch, even with our own feelings.
12 35 Patrick: touch is very significant in the primate context where there are lots of group constraints about what is and isn’t ok. In that sense, there are rules.
13 20 Mark: “Professional is everything that human beings aren’t… organised, disciplined…”
13 45 Mark brings up the example of Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army as example of that kind of ineffectual professionalism. Johnnie contrasts Mainwaring with Private Walker the black marketeer who Mainwaring sneers at but goes to sheepishly for his black market needs. Mark also contrasts with Sergeant Wilson who is more at ease touch/feel-wise.
15 40 Patrick: Where does this insecurity (about touch, feel) come from? Mark speculates part of it is just doing what we see those around us doing. How being professional appears to be morally superior although it’s “a denial of everything else apart from what goes on betwen our ears”.
17 20 Johnnie talks about how social software developments eg Facebook will contribute to a softening of this professional facade; that there will be less of a split between our working persona and our social one.
18 30 Patrick: I think the split might be between the touchers and the non-touchers. Some people just don’t want it and others tune into it very easily. Johnnie thinks it’s about context; people have different responses to touch in different contexts eg at work vs in the pub.
20 20 Mark: “people do have real lives as opposed to units of resource in a corporation” We might not find it easy to lose our own shackles but may find it easier to be around people who do. That might drive a gradual change.
21 20 Patrick refers back to the dangers of the Victoria Climbie incident repeating: “If we keep our separate lives… the autistic corporate one and the personal one, that problem is always going to be there.”
22 40 Mark talks about his experience with Planning for Good. What he finds is he has a personal connection with the people, they want to get involved. If you get proximity and connectedness to a purpose, something happens.
24 00 A few closing comments.
25 27 End