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If you love something; set it free

If it comes back, then it’s yours forever

If it doesn’t, then it was never yours in the first place

Do you agree with the above saying? Is true love a function of proximity? Whether or not this is true for you, brain science may suggest otherwise!

Let me explain.

If you’re in my generation, you probably remember when we used to buy ‘cassette tapes’ for music. There were the A and the B sides that required physical flipping of the unit to access either one. Bringing back memories?

Back then, you had to buy the whole album of 10-12 songs even though you only cared for the few ‘hit’ songs on Side A. While we did have the option of rewinding or fast-forwarding (Gen Y-ers are probably wondering what those actions are), most people usually let the tape roll through the rest of the songs before flipping sides. Then before we realised, those mundane songs got catchy and we caught ourselves humming their tunes while driving.

This is the power of propinquity.

In the book titled Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change by Joseph Grenny and Kerry Patterson, the term ‘Propinquity’ was used to describe these phenomena. The term itself means ‘the state of being close to someone or something’. In this context, propinquity represents that fact that our brain changes proportionally to distance: The closer the distance of an influencer the more the brain is likely to change, and vice versa.

In this regard, propinquity says that if you are close to someone then you are likely to love that person. Conversely, if you ‘set it free’ then you have a diminishing chance that it will ever come back to you. And brain-based leaders can learn to use this to our benefit.

For those who want to lose weight, one propinquity technique is to ‘change the size of the plate’. In 2006, Dr. Brian Wansink from Cornell University conducted an experiment where consumers were served using a special bowl. The custom-built container allowed soup to be refilled through its bottom without the person knowing: “I want to know whether people would stop eating when they’ve had enough, or when the bowl is empty”, said the researcher. Can you guess what the result was?

It turned out that the people who ate from these special bowls consumed 73% more than the group served with the regular ones. The patrons did not even realise they were eating that much; “It didn’t get any lesser no matter how much I ate, so I kept eating.” The study concluded that our feeling of being ‘full’ is measured by the amount of food we see before us rather than the volume of our stomach. We eat less when the food is in a small container, and we eat more in a large one.

Another example of propinquity; one restaurant faced a problem of staff ‘under-packing’ food, making it necessary to allocate extra resources to fix the mistakes. The manager simply drew a small line inside the container with words ‘add to this point’. And just like that, the problem disappeared. Simple, yet effective.

At work, propinquity implies that if you want your team to do something, you should present the desired behaviour in the simplest, closest, and clearest manner possible. For example, instead of describing our corporate culture as virtue or teamwork – most people don’t understand what these generic terms mean – Iclif puts on its wall ‘Assume Positive Intent’. Simple, yet effective.

Leadership Insights:

1. Use propinquity to your advantage. Try using the strategy of closeness on your people. Continue to observe the unfavourable behaviours and see if you have already exhausted all options to help the brain with proximity. I’ve worked with many organisations that desire ‘effective meetings’ in their culture but I couldn’t find a clock in any of their meeting rooms. How could the brain be punctual when it had no access to any visual cue of time?

2. Build a culture of closeness. As a leader, you should ask yourself whether you are leading with ‘true love’ or with ‘closeness’. 1) Leading with true love means you look after the subordinates— albeit with love and care – from afar. You believe that everyone is a good person who puts full effort into the job even if they don’t see your face around. Or, 2) leading with closeness means you are always there taking care of things. Yours is the face the team sees whenever there’s a problem, or an opportunity. When they have an idea to pitch, you are there ready to listen while it’s still fresh. You check on even problems that they might be having at home. You gave no distant remarks like “As long as it doesn’t affect your work”.

I once worked for a leader who I could always drop by for a chat. Even when I talked about things unrelated to the organisation, he was happy to listen and gave attentive advice. Whatever he promised to do, he did. Then, change happened and I had to work with a boss that operated on the ‘trust’ system. This meant that we only talked occasionally as he trusted I could handle the job. The empowerment sounded nice but somehow I found the distance negatively impacted our relationship. To my heart, it just wasn’t the same.

3. Create propinquity with a shared vision. Some executives may say, with good reasons, that “I couldn’t possibly have the time to get close to all the people in my organization,” or “That’s not my style”. In such case, another way to utilize propinquity is to build closeness via having a shared vision. Have you noticed how sports can mystically turn two complete strangers into friends? “Which team do you root for, coach?” is a question I often get when the topic of football comes up during lunch breaks. I found that when the tablemates all cheer for the same club, our intimacy skyrocketed and we bonded in the blink of an eye. That’s what a ‘mutual vision’ can do for leaders and their team.

Hence for the brain and its propinquity effect, the saying becomes.

If you love something; set it near

If it never leaves, then it’s yours forever

If it threatens to leave, do whatever you can to get close