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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Leaders Don’t Lose the Human Touch

Not long ago, we had a bunch of kids over to our house one night. They were noisy, and twice I spoke to them about staying quiet. I didn’t want to disturb the neighbors. Plus—I had to get up early the next day and wanted to go to bed soon. At 9:30, I was assured the noise would cease. Sometime later, I hit the sack. Evidently the noise continued—because my neighbor opened his front door and yelled at the top of his lungs: “If you don’t stop right now, I’m going to call the cops!”

The next day, I felt horrible and knew I had to make things right. I was embarrassed and treasured my friendship with the neighbor who lived across the street. We’ve known each other for years. So—I walked over and knocked on his door. I heard noise inside and knew he was home. No answer. I rang the doorbell.  Still nothing. Later that day, I called his cell. He didn’t pick up so I left him a voicemail. I offered a huge apology for the noise, asked for his forgiveness and for him to call me back. Others have seen him during the day, since he’s out of work, so we know he’s home. But, he has never called me back.

This illustrates something I’m deeply concerned about in our culture. Somewhere along the way—we’ve lost our ability to connect face to face. My neighbor is either unable or unwilling to face me—even when he knows I simply seek his forgiveness. In times past, neighbors would talk about problems together; calling the police was a last resort. Today, we email our colleagues in the office next to us to complain. In fact, we’d rather talk about someone when we we’re disgruntled than to them. We avoid people, even though we’re more connected than ever. High school students text their girlfriend to break up. Texts are now more frequent than phone calls in the U.S. We’d rather tweet or Facebook or I.M. than talk face to face. It’s easier. No hassles. No EQ necessary. I think we’re getting lazy.

I read yesterday how vending machines are changing to make purchases more…uh, human. Recognizing the need for a human touch, “dream machines” will be launched soon. According to Dan Matthews, COO at the National Automatic Merchandising Association, “We now have machines that look and act like iPads.” Pepsico has a prototype with a touch-screen that’s interactive. People can “gift” a beverage to a friend by entering their name and mobile number. You can even personalize it with a short video. The largest vending machine company, Crane, has created “talking” machines where you can interact with several machines, making a number of purchases, but paying once when you are finished. Sounds cool to me.

Sadly, however, this won’t fix the problem. We’re still interacting more with machines than humans. We can still be lazy. Eventually, will we lack the backbone to experience healthy confrontation, to seek or offer forgiveness when needed or to hold redemptive conversations? Is our empathy for people dropping, too?

In a world of ATMs and automated check out counters, I must admit technology does make life easier. But it also causes me to atrophy in my relational skills and my emotional connection with vendors. This is leading some supermarkets to restore old-fashioned conversations by eliminating the machines that let you checkout without talking to a human. It will cost them more money—but it will cost them more in human capital if they didn’t do it.

What do you think? Am I over concerned about this? Should I just enjoy technology and not worry about the human touch?



  1. Candace on September 19, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Ur concern is real Tim n I’m a huge optimist!!

    Depression is worse than ever what u described is deepening it!!

    We hv the modern benefits & detriments, n this is the latter.

    • Tim Elmore on September 19, 2011 at 2:40 pm

      Yes – it’s amazing how even small steps of being intentional about retaining the human touch carry bring about positive changes.

  2. Kaye on September 19, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Good points, Tim.  You mentioned the tendency to make our complaints via e-mail.  I’ve discovered that this can be a very unwise way for me to respond because I may not be my usual sensitive self if I’m not seeing the person face-to-face – which means that I then make the problem even worse.  Yikes.  I got myself into an awful mess by doing that recently; I really hoped I’ve learned my lesson.

    • Tim Elmore on September 19, 2011 at 2:50 pm

      Yikes! Thanks for sharing that warning and great reminder!
      I usually try to reserve email for conveying information and reserve face-to-face or phone conversations for communicating emotion.

  3. Craig on September 19, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    No, you’re not over-reacting at all. This is an issue. One way I’ve tried to counteract this: when someone texts/emails a message that I think would be better handled face-to-face, I don’t reply electronically, but make a point to talk live. Hopefully it’s making a difference.

    • Tim Elmore on September 20, 2011 at 10:31 pm

      That’s a great, practical step to dealing with this situation – amazing how much can be covered in a simple face-to-face conversation. Appreciate you sharing it with us!

  4. Ionicbonds97 on September 19, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    I think it’s funny that the response from Candace is in “text” language. I also share your concern.

    • Tim Elmore on September 20, 2011 at 10:26 pm

      I also noticed several people pointing out the irony of my tweets about this issue. I’m glad we can all have fun with it. But I hope we use these tools well and realize there is a concern – we have to be intentional about maintaining the human touch.

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Leaders Don’t Lose the Human Touch