Is It Really Lonely at the Top?

Maybe not. Life revolves around three social spaces: personal private space, public or work space and a kind of “social courtyard” space in between the two. Savvy executives learn to develop relationships that thrive in that in-between social courtyard space.

Physical courtyards serve a unique function in mediating between public outdoor space and private indoor space.

Last summer, we were strolling through the streets of Madrid when we came upon an unexpected entrance. A heavy wooden door stood open, offering passage from the crowded city street to a beautiful, enclosed courtyard. The hushed space, framed by lush green plants, was surrounded by sky blue walls that reflected the delicate floor tiles. A mirror hung on one wall, and on the opposite side was a stand for umbrellas and a place for shoes. Another door at the back of the courtyard led to a private space. It was closed. Internal courtyards are common in European cities. In the summer, the shaded confines of a courtyard cool the hot fumes from the street before they reach the private space. During winter, the courtyard’s sheltering walls temper icy blasts. The mirror allows for one last appearance check before entering either the public or the private space. Wet umbrellas and shoes can be temporarily discarded so as not to sully the private space and then picked up again upon leaving. Physical courtyards serve a unique function in mediating between public and private spaces and between the public outdoor world and the private indoor one. Physical spaces have analogous social counterparts. From our perspective, life revolves around three social spaces: personal private space, public or work space — and what we call courtyard space. Each of these spaces can be associated with a certain type of relationship: friends, allies and what we call “chums.” Personal space is occupied by friends, a term we use to indicate relationships where acceptance is close to unconditional. You may not like some of the behaviors of your closest personal friends, but the relationships will probably continue. They have been, and likely will remain, part of your inner circle. The public space, by contrast, is the social sphere of highly conditional relationships. These relationships come and go, lasting only as long as they help both parties achieve valued goals. Colleagues, clients, prospects, acquaintances, customers, teammates, bosses, peers, classmates and subordinates are all members of conditional relationships, and they all occupy the public social space.

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