Out of Touch

meeting-1702638_640Inspiration can come from anywhere. For Dr. Benjamin Tee, it was a scene from the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. “There was a scene when Luke Skywalker lost his hand, and towards the end a robot surgeon repaired his hand, complete with full sensations. And I really wanted to recreate this science fiction scene into scientific reality.”

Dr. Tee and his colleagues at the National University of Singapore have created ACES – Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin – a collection of 100 sensors packed into a patch only 1 square centimeter big. Their goal is to create a synthetic skin for robotic and prosthetic applications that will mimic the sensation of human touch. Tee explains that “Humans use our sense of touch to accomplish almost every daily task, such as picking up a cup of coffee or making a handshake. Without it, we will even lose our sense of balance when walking.”

Though still in the experimental stage, ACES can already accurately detect the shape, texture, and density of objects, and does so 10 times faster than the human eye can blink. It can read Braille letters with an accuracy rate of better than 90%. Small wonder then that the medical community has shown “tremendous interest” in Tee’s work.

Dr. Elizabeth Segal of Arizona State University has also studied the lack of touch, although her work takes a somewhat different angle. As a psychologist, she’s interested in leaders who lose touch with their teams. She cites two specific reasons why leaders tend to lose empathy for those around them.

The first is lack of personal experience. People in charge often have no idea what life is like for most of the people working for them. Even if someone “came up through the ranks,” time and distance have a way of muting memories of what that early work experience was like.

Secondly, Segal says that “power blocks empathy.” The more layers there are in an organization, the less those at the top need to attend to the behaviors of those lower in the hierarchy. Because their success depends on attending to the moods and needs of those higher up the chain, workers lower in the organization are better at reading other people. “People in power can be empathetic, but they need to work at it, to want to feel for others.”

Fortunately, there are some easy ways for leaders to stay connected with their teams. The Refresh Leadership Blog offers these simple tips.

Take an employee to lunch. Let your guard down and ask some questions. Allow them to ask questions of their own. Relate on a personal level vs. a strictly business one.

Walk in their shoes. Schedule time to shadow an employee to see what they face during an average day. Don’t interfere or of offer feedback. Just observe, listen, and learn.

Hold regular team meetings. Create time where employees can discuss issues and ideas. Let them share concerns freely and engage with them without passing judgement.

Staying connected with your team is critical maintaining a healthy work environment. Leaders who lose touch run the risk of damaging morale and productivity. Like skin, trust is easy to damage and takes a long time to repair. Just ask Dr. Tee – his team is also working to develop a self-healing artificial skin.