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Why Distancing Yourself From Your Work Can Make You A Better Leader

Research shows that distance, both physical and emotional, can lead to happier and more creative employees.

Why Distancing Yourself From Your Work Can Make You A Better Leader
[Photo: Maryna Pleshkun via Shutterstock]

When a coworker is suddenly promoted and becomes your boss, or vice versa–the relationship can become strained. It’s a tricky space to navigate. All of a sudden the dynamic between you has shifted, and developing that new relationship can be difficult.

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It can be just as hard to figure out customers’ needs or negotiate a deal with a potential partner. Inevitably, there’s a gap between the way you see the world and the way the person on the other side sees it. Negotiating that gap means negotiating what social scientists call psychological distance.

In a recent piece in Harvard Business Review, Rebecca Hamilton, a Georgetown University professor of marketing, unpacks the importance of psychological distance in the workplace. “Leaders who recognize and understand the effects of psychological distance and then use two specific strategies to reduce–or sometimes increase–the amount of distance, can improve their outcomes in many different professional scenarios,” Hamilton writes.

Social psychologists also call this , which involves four types of psychological distance: social, temporal, spatial, and experiential. It turns out we have the ability to manipulate our psychological distance not just to other people but also to moments in time, places, and experiences. This can mean the difference between managing your time effectively or not. It can mean connecting well with people who are far away and holding others at just the right distance.

Knowing how to widen or narrow psychological distance in certain scenarios or substitute one form of psychological distance for another are the two specific strategies Hamilton advocates for in order to become a better leader. But while being able to empathize and narrow the psychological gap between yourself and employees might seem like a tricky skill to master, often it’s that ability to distance yourself from a situation that can be just as valuable in making you a better leader.

Manipulating Social Distance

We’ve already established that social distance–how closely in line you are with another person’s thoughts, emotions, and motives–isn’t the same for boss and employee as it is for close friends. While trying to understand other people’s perspectives is important in order to be an empathetic and attentive leader, research out of Stanford University has shown that employees are more satisfied with their jobs when the leaders of their company offer a broader, more abstract vision rather than focusing on granular specifics.

While it’s important to provide specific feedback to people who report directly to you, when creating a bigger vision or mission, creating that social distance can allow you to focus on more abstract goals and help employees think in bigger and bolder ways.

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Controlling Physical Space

Increasing the literal distance between you and employees can help widen social distance. “If you’re in a situation where you need to command respect among your peers (that is, increase your social distance), spatial distance can substitute,” writes Hamilton. “Move to a new office down the hall; give yourself a bit more space at the conference table rather than squeezing in right next to your colleagues.”

In another study cited by Hamilton that looks at the influence of ceiling height on people’s behavior, researchers found that when people were in rooms with higher ceilings, they were more creative in pairing items together. While the study focuses on consumers and how retail spaces affect shopping patterns, the results can also translate in the workplace: creating bigger, brighter, more airy places for employees to work can have a direct effect on how creatively they think.

Developing more spatial distance can also be helpful when you are feeling stuck working on the same problem in the same spot for a long time. Getting up and allowing yourself to work in a new environment–distancing yourself from the space you associate with that particular project–can help you think more abstractly and find new solutions.

Create More Time

We can manipulate temporal psychological distance, or how near or far an event in the future feels from us–depending on how specifically or broadly we think about events in the future. For example, creating step-by-step deadlines for big projects will help to make those projects feel closer and more immediate, according to Hamilton.

But creating greater psychological distance can be valuable too. Focusing on what outcomes you want out of a project or the future can help you distance yourself from the day-to-day details and think more ambitiously. The farther away an event seems in time, the more willing you’ll be to take risks and make bold moves.

Getting Closer to Experiences

Narrowing the distance between a person and experience is important when trying to connect with employees. But if you’re trying to get employees to change their behavior and take on a new set of practices, rather than asking them to dive right in, creating greater experiential distance can help make them more accepting of those changes.

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One way to do this, according to Hamilton, is creating a set of “best practices,” which can help distance people from harping on your immediate demands and allow them to see how those changes fit into a larger picture. While making an experience more immediate and concrete may seem like the best way to sell it, until people can take a step back and see how and why an experience will work, they may be hesitant. “Best practices feel safe because people within your organization or industry have already adopted them,” writes Hamilton. Don’t be afraid to create that distance for an even stronger connection down the line.

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.

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