Our Syncing Feeling

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison argues that being out of sync and out of the office sometimes can be a creative spark.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of The Five Graces of Life and Leadership.

It was a tale of two meetings.

Earlier this week, as I continued business travel in Europe, I walked into an office and greeted two colleagues for an in-person meeting that was three years in the making. It was all hugs and smiles and catching up about our families. “Pure joy,” one of our colleagues observed, while the other nodded and simply said, “Surreal.” By the time we got down to business, the room radiated with positive energy.

Flash forward just a few days later. Same people, even the same topic—a follow-up to our in-person discussion. This time, though, we met by Zoom. The vibe was totally different. We were done in only 25 minutes, instead of the full hour we’d scheduled. Even as we were very efficient and productive, I’ll admit I left the session feeling a little bit hollow and perplexed.

Better? Worse? The moral of these two stories carries a paradoxical meaning for all of us. Today’s leaders are walking the tightrope across a complex workscape where ambiguity will abound for the foreseeable future.

As the pendulum swings in all directions, yesterday’s remote is today’s hybrid, shapeshifting to tomorrow’s return to the office—and back again. With a finger on the pulse, we need to be cognizant of the extremes—not everything works for everyone all the time.

Yes, it is true that up to 90% of communication is nonverbal, which is clearly easier to discern and appreciate in person. And, with all due respect to the poets, authors, and painters who can create and convey these feelings at a distance, there’s just something different about being in person.

But that’s not the whole story. Amelia Haynes, who focuses on neuroscience at our Korn Ferry Institute, observed that there are some benefits to asynchrony—being “out of sync,” like when we’re not in the same room together. For one thing, being virtual can create some helpful distance to guard against groupthink. Maybe it’s the psychological safety of being in our own space that give us more freedom to speak up and provide candid feedback—instead of just trying to “be nice” and “get along.”

The unspoken truth is that being out of sync and out of the office sometimes can be the spark to ignite creative chaos and constructive conflict—which can lead to collective genius.

Today, it’s not about either/or. The workplace is transforming and there’s room for all of it. As leaders, we need to deepen our understanding of how the “where” intersects with the “why.”

Clearly, it’s all about balance—toggling between the synchrony of being together and the asynchrony of being apart. But it doesn’t happen by luck, hope, or chance. It’s deliberate. As our firm’s psychologists tell us, there are things that leaders can do to achieve higher or lower levels of synchrony in teams. When synchrony is strategically managed, it can help support empathy, collaboration, learning, and engagement.

How? We just need to think back to the biggest workscape experiment of them all—when the world suddenly shut down at the start of the pandemic.

In early 2020 and the uncharted territory of remote everything, we all shared a taste of isolation and disconnection. In response, we led with our hearts and our humanity, taking risks to become more vulnerable—even if that meant through a screen.

There’s a time and a place for everything. But one thing is for sure: anywhere and everywhere, it’s all about generating emotions. As Kevin Cashman, our global co-leader of CEO and Enterprise Leader Development, told me the other day: “Experiences constantly impact us from the outside in. However, how we emotionally interpret these experiences from the inside out is the force multiplier of leadership, for better or for worse. Blending a life-enriching purpose with more positive emotion fosters passion, allowing us to extract elevated meaning and learning from a greater breadth of experiences.”

Think about it. We knew this intuitively as kids, when that final bell rang on the last day of school. Goodbye, math problems and spelling quizzes—hello summer vacation, with a joyfulness we could just taste. Even now, hearing the echoes of those bells in our minds, we can still feel powerful emotions at our core.

As leaders today we need to heed the sound. We can bridge the synchronous and the asynchronous across how and where we’re working. Indeed, in each moment, it’s all about how we understand, adapt to, and manage that syncing feeling.