The Empty Seat

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnsion worries that people, whether they're in the office or remote, aren’t “showing up" at work.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Take Control: The Career You Want, Where You Want.

“Ah, that’s right… she’s out at that event this week.”

“Remember, he’s traveling to see clients for a few days.”

“Oh—you didn’t hear what happened?”

A vacant cubicle and a missing colleague invite these kinds of observations. We are aware, consciously, or unconsciously.

We all notice that empty seat.

And it used to be far more transparent when we were all in the office. Day in and day out, bonds were forged as lives became interwoven, even among those who were not necessarily friends outside of work. From celebrations of joy to consolations of sorrow—everything was out in the open and shared in the moment.

But if we’re honest, what used to be organic is now inorganic. As a result, some of the workplace conversations are a little different these days.

“It’s going to be a tough week—I have to go into the office twice for work events.”

Hearing these words just the other day from a young professional I know, I was curious. “Why’s that?”

“They’re not my real friends,” she told me. “They’re just the people I work with.”

Her comment is a sign and a symptom of what’s happening across the workscape. And it’s not the remote versus in-person debate. That’s not what we’re talking about here—another dynamic is at play.

In a world that’s becoming increasingly polarized these days, people may be reluctant to bring their real selves to work. Even in the office, working side by side with others, we can all be guarded in what we say. All of this can lead to compartmentalizing—separating ourselves, like fire and ice. With that comes the tendency to walk only in our own shoes, instead of in those of others.

It used to be so natural. Just think back to the elementary school playground. Someone asked, “Wanna be my friend,” and that’s usually what happened!

Not so easy today. Our firm’s psychologists explain that three dimensions of friendship are trust, authenticity, and organic shared experiences. Frankly, it’s hard to create that through a 12-inch screen with a set agenda and a scripted discussion. And even when people are together, the relational has become far more transactional.

As a result, what was once seen is often unseen—the obvious now opaque: Someone having a difficult day. The colleague leaving early to visit a sick loved one. The exuberant celebration and deep satisfaction of success. And, that empty chair.

So perhaps it is not friendship that we are really missing, but the art of connecting in meaningful, authentic ways. Or maybe it’s both—what we might call connectionship.

And there’s science to back it up: Affiliative leadership is among the six leadership styles identified in our firm’s research, based on hundreds of thousands of leaders around the world. It focuses on creating trust and harmony—acknowledging that we all want and need human connection.

After all, we all long to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Even more than deep friendship, what we seek from others is the sense that they have our back—just as we have theirs. As Carole King famously sang in her iconic song:

If the sky above you grows dark and full of clouds, and that old north wind begins to blow…

Keep your head together and call my name out loud. Soon you'll hear me knockin' at your door.

In short, it’s a sense of community that pulls people in. And it’s up to all of us—physically and virtually—to open our doors.

Connectionship is a two-way street.

Yes, employers can and should seek ways to increase engagement—no matter where or how people work. But equally important, everyone must show up—with authenticity and vulnerability. Because here’s the thing, if people aren’t their real selves, they’ll never achieve real connection.

Leaders have an important role to play, too—modeling what this looks like for others. In fact, as our firm has found, forging and fostering connection requires the same traits and abilities that underscore all effective leadership. It starts with selflessness—it’s not about you. Bring in empathy—meeting others where they are. And, most important, it’s showing our true selves—who we are, not just what we do.

As these attitudes and behaviors cascade through the organization, it sparks connection.

Indeed, when we feel connected, we fit in. And when we fit in, we belong. And when we belong, we can truly see and notice others—both the colleagues with us and that empty seat among us.