Forget hugs, I need a handshake

By Associate Director of Leadership Development Alex Combs

The handshake.  It’s pretty remarkable how a simple gesture can convey such a powerful message.  Indeed, a true testament to the importance of non-verbal communication.  We use the handshake to greet, say farewell, congratulate, even size-up our fellow man.  But do we use it enough in our work together?  I was struck by this thought while reading an article in Harvard Business Review exploring that very concept.

Today’s business world is teeming with contracts.  Unsurprisingly, the same applies to Greek life, as well.  We are infatuated with laying out every expectation and rule for our undergraduates and creating contingency plans for the unexpected, down to every foreseeable detail.  Amidst terms & conditions clauses, insurance affidavits, recognition agreements, accreditation programs, and the like, we must admit there is little room left to the free-will of undergraduates, whether that be of an insidious or altruistic nature.

Granted, many of us believe these to be necessary evils to a system fraught with liability and engulfed by insurance policy, perhaps accurately so.  But is it ever considered that the very contracts we use to preserve our working relationships might be doing more to decay them, instead?  Maybe then we wouldn’t be so quick to believe these as necessary.

The point – an agreement over a handshake can set the general guidelines to a relationship, while leaving room for common sense and goodwill to govern actions when those unexpected or unforeseen circumstances arise.  However, with contracts, they set out to explicitly define what could otherwise be governed by social norms, removing our responsibility to adhere to common sense and instead obsess over the details of the contract.  Therefore, anything not stated in the contract is free game.

It’s simply paradoxical that the more we try to define expectations, the more we leave unsaid.  The more specific I state my parameters, the more parameters I’m forced to specify.  This can go on to a seemingly limitless degree, much to the detriment of not only our relationships – being based more on distrust than trust – but also our performance.

In the article, a CEO describes one of the worst decisions of his career.  He set out to develop a detailed performance evaluation that would guide decisions on raises, bonuses, and benefits.  He thought it would increase transparency and understanding of the ideal performance.  He was wrong.  Instead, his employees only cared about meeting those terms, regardless of whether or not it was to the benefit of coworkers or the company.  Ultimately, morale and overall performance tanked.

Perhaps that is why honor codes are often so simplistic.  It sounds like something you would agree to over a handshake.  I must admit, having managed many students and consulted many chapters, I’ve expected a lot of things from many people.  But I’m never more confident about those expectations being met as I am when I can look that person in the eyes and say, “I’m counting on you to do the right thing.” Then we follow that with a handshake.

Source:  Ariely, D. (2011, March). In Praise of The Handshake.  Harvard Business Review, 40.

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