A leaders’ critical distance


If you have ever been to a concert, you have probably noticed the small arsenal of equipment that was plopped in the middle of the seating area. Unless you were up on your audio physics, you may not know why the equipment was placed there, of all places. Couldn’t that have been used for more seats?

This is where the sound, lighting, and video techs work their magic during the show, and the location was chosen for a very specific reason. It’s something called critical distance.

Critical distance is the distance from the sound source where the direct and reverberant sound energies become equal. In other words, it’s the sweet spot in the venue that sounds best. (Critical Distance is also the name of a CD by the band Allison Engine, but that’s a different story for a different time.)

Why is the critical distance so… critical?  This is where the person controlling the sound makes their decisions. Are the vocals loud enough?  Can you hear the bass guitar? That is all controlled by the sound guy/girl.  If they hear too much of the reverberant (indirect) sound, they can’t make the right decision in terms of what you should be hearing.  In other words, they can’t do their jobs.

I was thinking about this concept the other day in terms of leadership, and how there is a critical distance we need to keep from our employees. Of course we need to be close enough to know what’s going on and what makes them tick, but we also don’t want to be TOO close because we could lose our objectivity.

Before social media, one of the big concerns for young supervisors was not going out with their employees after work. If they did, they would inevitably put themselves in a situation where they would learn something a little too personal about their employees or vise-verse.  That would change the relationship back at work, which typically undermines the leaders’ authority, making it tough to do their jobs.  Where have we heard that before?

With social media, maintaining a critical distance for a leader becomes a little more murky.  Some leaders have taken a hard line with their employees and have said, “We will NOT be connected on Facebook”, while others connect but only share certain things, etc.  Unless your company has a policy, to me there is no hard and fast rule, as long as you are consistent and can maintain the objectivity to do your job.

Tips for maintaining a “critical distance”:

  • Be upfront with your employees about your intentions.  If you are de-friending someone or not accepting their request to connect, explain your reasons why.  Tell them you have a responsibility to maintain an objective view with all of your employees.
  • You can be friendly without being “friends”.  Having a friendly demeanor is respectful of the people you are working with.  Take that outside the workplace too often, where the filters and guards are often let down, and your friendliness could be misconstrued as friendship.  Unfortunately, too much of that kind of exposure can put your objectivity in jeopardy.
  • Recognize (and embrace) the “comfortable tension” between you and your employees.  There is a palpable feeling that exists when you have successfully gotten to know your employees and are “friendly” with them, but have also maintained a professional and objective distance between you.  I can only describe this feeling as a “comfortable tension”, because it’s a slightly unsettling feeling that you are actually doing your job correctly.

What are your experiences with the “critical distance”?  Do you find it’s easy or difficult to maintain?

Thanks for reading!!

Matt

PS – Have you been following the #noburnout tweets and posts? Still sharing more through the end of August!

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