Months ago, I found myself in front of a large audience composed of the highest ranks of the HR function within the Civil Service, the ones hiring the best minds to serve in many places of the Government of the country. I made a comment in passing about the need to know people beyond the superficial managerial relationship yet respect their space and individuality. In that particular sector, the turnover was very low, and only recently people had started moving across departments. In that context, the top managers told me that they knew their people quite well, working closely with them, with the same ones, all the time. Something made me feel that this was more of an assumption than fact, given the array of ‘people issues’ that they seemed to tackle. I suggested that perhaps because they knew them so well, they did not know them at all.
In throwing this little grenade, I was thinking of what the late John O’Donohue said in his bestseller Anam Cara. He told the story of the Latin American writer and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) who said of his wife ‘“I know her so well now that I have not the slightest idea who she is.” Which is a poetic version of the Hegelian ‘the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, remains unknown’.
The familiarity of people working with us all the time gives us an illusion of proximity, but often we don’t know them. Their presence (our presence) is predictable, perhaps very pleasant, perhaps not, but not necessarily a reason to understand the individual working with us, or for us.
I suggested in my talk that leaders should make a concerted effort to get closer not to people who they don’t know, but to people ‘they know well’, and let a deeper understanding emerge. I have associated Leadership to the creation of space. This space for people, for all of us, brings the hidden humanity to the surface. Who knows, we may discover unknown skills or interests, or simply a completely different version of ‘the colleague’.
At a structural level, very close teams, very used to each other in the team, very familiar with each others thinking, may be a barrier for new ideas and innovation. Letting the hidden humanity out (social-ability and social space) may just discover a completely different set of colleagues.
That was perhaps the more interesting thing about that gathering of Civil Servants and myself; the rest perhaps forgotten, who knows. I don’t know them well, so I think I know what their challenges are.