The Return of an Ancient Management Secret

It has the power to bridge gaps, to boost confidence, and to give you the courage to risk greater achievement. In all likelihood your mother did it, your grade school teacher did it, and your school teammates did it. But your manager is probably terrified to try it. What is this highly-effective, ancient management secret? Touch. Authentic, comforting, powerful touch.

“This isn’t just a yoga thing,” writes Peter Bregman in a recent post on his semi-monthly HBR blog. Bregman’s insight began with the observation that simple touches from his yoga instructor to improve his pose transformed her class into the most refreshing and inspirational he’d ever experienced. It launched him on a journey to explore the power of touch and answer the burning question that ignites the moment you hear “touch” and “work” in the same sentence: What will HR say?!

Bregman reminds us of studies, such as Harry Harlow’s in the 1960s at the University of Wisconsin documenting the stunting impact of touch deprivation on infants, humans or otherwise. He notes a sympathetic touch from a doctor makes patients feel the visit lasted twice as long. He refers to a soon-to-be-published Psychological Science study from Columbia University reflecting a renewed willingness to risk more in pursuit of achievement when we’ve experienced a brief, light touch. We’re reminded of studies reflecting more wins on teams where players touch each other, and eventually of that particularly effective elementary school teacher who would simply walk around the room guiding distracted students back to task with a light touch and not a single word of reprimand.

But what of those HR warnings of lawsuits? Bregman councils us on the importance of authenticity and briefness. At DePauw Univeristy, Mathew Herstein led a study where random pairs of blindfolded students attempted to communicate an emotion to each other with a touch. Those folks that HR worries about – let this be your warning. The students accurately identified the emotion as often as we do when using verbal and facial communication (without a blindfold, of course). A brief, light touch given with authentic intention to support and comfort will usually be recognized in that way, as will the “creepy” touch that causes us to recoil and summon HR. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we feel it.

So what’s a supportive co-worker to do? Having been a beneficiary of the supportive touch – and a recipient of the creepy one – I concur with the majority of Bregman’s commenters. It’s high time we re-employed the power of that ancient management secret: the gentle, supportive touch.