To meet the pace of change, we need to meet in person

July 21, 2022, 9:34 AM UTC
Live events create common ground by bringing together diverse people who share the same affinities.
Taylor Hill—Getty Images for Governors Ball

You aren’t imagining it. The pace of change increases exponentially, with each successive sign wave of disruptive events increasing in frequency and amplitude.

This question gets to the very heart of the challenge for anyone trying to run a business in these unsettling times. The sheer firehose of breaking news wears down our resilience and impedes our progress.

Because of the pandemic, we have been deprived of the live events (concerts, sports, theatre, etc.) that traditionally brought diverse people together. Some of these events have deep and cross-generational significance, where families pass down season tickets as an inheritance.  

In an unpredictable, unsettling world, the nature of these familiar live events has a grounding effect. It is in our nature as humans to collect in tribes. We find it comforting.

In the interest of full disclosure, I earn my living in the events industry. In that role, I have seen how coming together in a live, shared experience connects people in a way that transcends our differences. For this reason, I argue that we have never needed live events more.

Knowing that our strength as a 95-year-old organization is rooted in a collaborative culture, where we trust each other to act with a shared sense of purpose, we have examined how our collective sense of trust as Americans has shifted since the turn of the century. We wondered about the cumulative impact of twenty years of disruptions, piling up with unrelenting ferocity, and never allowing us time to process, react, or move on before the next one hits the proverbial fan.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. We have all witnessed the explosion of technological innovations in the last twenty years.

As futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted back in 2001, innovations will double every ten years. “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century–it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” This points to vast opportunity. The question is, how do we act on it when our people are exhausted and overwhelmed?

We looked back to the start of the millennium, literally with the Y2K bug, and began sorting subsequent news events into three groups. We’ve come to think of this as the “pressure stack.”  

  • Geopolitical and Economics: From the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the attacks of 9/11, through to Brexit, COVID-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and recent political divisions.
  • Technology and Science: From AOL’s purchase of Time-Warner, through the emergence of social media, the use of Bitcoin, mapping of the human genome, and on to the recent launch of the Metaverse.
  • Society, Culture, and Ecology: From the first online film release (YouTube hit “405”), through the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Deepwater Horizon Fire, the emergence of the #MeToo movement, bringing us to the Great Resignation.

Next, we compared this with data from the Edelman Trust Barometer recorded for each of the last 22 years.

Even with cable news gaining traction in the year 2000, there was still a general sense of trust in TV news. But as print journalism gives way to social media, where the algorithms favor and monetize polarization, and as search engines further enable confirmation bias, trust in government and the media falls into steady decline.

The politics of polarization and associated fake news divide people and disintegrate trust. Here is the resulting graphic, and I think you’ll find it alarming. Trust in government and the media hit an all-time low this year, leaving business as the most trusted institution.

Courtesy of Freeman

I refuse to declare that trust is dead, but I think it’s time to bring out the defibrillator. We need to restore trust by bringing people together around a shared sense of purpose. And let me be clear.  My conviction that meeting in person is important does not preclude the benefits of virtual connections. They too can happen in real time and allow for interpersonal exchanges, while extending our reach and enriching the diversity of participants. We need both kinds of live interaction.

Live events give us a way to celebrate the things we love with those who share our affinity. They create common ground–and it’s easier to feel that connection at in-person events. When we wear the same team jersey, are fans of the same fantasy cosplay characters, or are standing face-to-face at an auto show, we are going to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully, those shared affinities help us feel less inclined to judge and less paranoid about being judged in turn. Whether it is my passion for antique Harleys or mythical hobbits that brings me to a conference, my love is not likely to be diminished by breaking news, fake, or otherwise.

When we connect in real life, in a space shared with like-minded people, our faces, our postures, our gestures, and our tone of voice all convey meaning that a world of emojis and memes can’t touch. Trust begins when we connect eyeball to eyeball in a way that is hard to imagine on a Zoom call. In the classic Albert Mehrabian study on body language, he showed that in conversations, communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and only seven percent based on words.

Togetherness promotes empathy and active listening. Maintaining eye contact lets the person we’re conversing with know that we are focused on what they are saying and that what they say matters. Another advantage of IRL: Even internet trolls are on their best behavior when out in public with no anonymity to hide behind.

To master change, we need a healthy and motivated workforce. This means we need to act urgently, with intent and empathy, to re-earn the trust of our people by helping them rebuild resiliency. In the face of constant change, we need face-to-face connection.

Bob Priest-Heck is the CEO of Freeman

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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