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Thursday, March 3, 2011


Leadership can be a difficult practice because it revolves around relationships with people. Recently however I came across an interesting variable to this whole leadership equation that according to sociophysical theorists (yes, there really are sociophysical theorists out there, also in the study of sociopsychology) we tend to neglect, that of propinquity. Propinquity is the impact of space on relationships, as first theorized by psychologists Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, Kurt Lewin and Kurt Back.

As leaders facing human relationship dysfunction our first tendency is to attack the issue based on the personalities involved. Propinquity encourages us to consider the nearness, or proximity in space and its effect on relationships. I have to admit, I've read a lot of leadership and relationship material but have failed to come across this theory until now, and I am fascinated by it. It is more than just removing a person from an environment to solve a problem, it encourages leaders to look at how the actual environment may be affecting relationships.

While the original theorists really focused on the proximity of people, such as two people living on the same floor of a residence hall are in closer propinquity then two people living on different floors, modern theorists urge us to not only consider proximity but the environment itself. Such an example could be a relationship gone bad between co-workers A & B. The supervisor separates them, moving A to another office suite and putting someone else (C) in A's place with B. In time the relationship between B & C starts deteriorating. Natural deductive reasoning tells the supervisor that B must be the problem since A is now happy and productive and C has been negatively affected. So the supervisor naturally deals with B as the source of the dysfunction (which they could be). But propinquity would urge us as leaders to consider the less obvious. Is there something within the office suite itself that is causing the dysfunction between B & C and originally between A & B? Does the office suite have a window? Is there a ventilation problem? Is the office suite too small for multiple occupants? And on and on we could go, examining multiple unconsidered variables. Propinquity encourages the examination of the environment as a whole, not just the proximity of people in the environment, although that too must be examined.

All this to say that it is entirely too easy for leaders to take the most obvious, and usually the route of least resistance when fixing a problem. But how often does the problem re-emerge with a different set of players? Next time you find yourself in a situation where dysfunction is arising in a relationship, I encourage you to not only consider the people involved and their personalities, but also the propinquity. It could be the environment and not the people causing the dysfunction.

Just something to think about...

Lead Strong...


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