The untimely demise of the handshake


So here’s an odd yet actual thing I saw recently:

People are calling for a ban on handshakes in the workplace.

And guys, I have to say, I’m very torn.

Being the most introverted of introverts, I’ve fumbled through more ungainly handshakes than is reasonable for any human to endure. I’ve crushed fingers; I’ve clashed thumbs. Each gym I join requires an awkward initiation to the house bro-clasp, a horrific time filled with missed fist bumps and unintentional petit madames. I’ve quite literally fled the house of gains to avoid the mere possibility of a post-workout high five.


But as much as I’d personally be thrilled to farewell this archaic ritual, even though bowing is far more hygienic and infinitely less prone to awkwardness, I can’t help but think that doing away with the handshake is a bad idea.

It’s not that I’m in any way sentimental. And I certainly understand the reasoning behind the push. Harassment is a foul smell lingering from an era that should never have been. But should we really let a few grubs stop us from having nice things?

It’s a knee-jerk reaction, a band-aid solution that doesn’t solve the underlying beliefs or behaviours, but inflames an equally serious problem.

As we becoming steadily more connected through technology, yet increasingly at risk of becoming disconnected from one another, if ever there were a time we should be encouraging human connection — it’s now.

The slightest physical contact — a hug, a hand on the shoulder, or even a handshake — can change our physiology in an instant. It’s fundamental to our wellbeing, as well as our performance at work.

Human connection builds relationships

Collaboration consistently rates as one of the most sought-after skills. The 2018 Workplace Learning Report by LinkedIn identified it as the third highest learning and development focus for executives, people managers, and talent developers.

No surprises there, the nature of most business requires people working together in teams, and the organisations that do it well, tend to perform better.

Several years back, we worked with a wonderful individual at a certain global organisation to improve connection within their teams. One component of the program was an ostensibly simple comms campaign sharing the technique to delivering a perfect high five (looking at the other person’s elbow guarantees a very satisfactory slap, ICYWW).

This wasn’t just for lols, though. It was based on neuroscience (seriously) — specifically, the way physical contact causes our brain to flood our body with oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates social bonding. Given that working together effectively requires trust and psychological safety, physical contact can be a very good thing.

The campaign worked, too. People were joyfully slapping fives in the hallways in a glorious staccato of connection. Smiles and laughter were all the metrics we needed to deem it a success.

Sadly, though, the fun was short-lived. The campaign was pulled because someone proclaimed the risk of a hand connecting (intentionally or accidentally) with another’s haunches.

Now, I’m no risk analyst, but as someone who has endured some glorious failures to connect in his time, I can tell you the probability of palm–buttock connection in a high five is slim to none. If it were a physical possibility, no doubt I would’ve accidentally done it.

But I digress. The moral behind this unhappy ending?

Let’s not be the person who kills connection out of fear. Let’s be the leader who understood the power of connection to build relationships, and trusted people to determine what was appropriate, and what wasn’t.

Human connection relieves stress and anxiety

Anyone who’s experienced anxiety — and according to recent statistics, that’s about half of us — knows it’s not a great feeling. The tightness in the chest, suffocating us. The panic of not being able to get enough air into our lungs. Breathing shallow; cortisol flooding our bodies. A loss of rational thought, replaced with a primitive urge for fight or flight.

Obviously, this is not an ideal state for doing our best work. And as social and work pressures continue to elevate the rate of stress and anxiety, leaders are not only responsible for their own mental health, they’re also tasked with the wellbeing of their people.

So, it should come as some comfort to discover that physical contact lowers our cortisol levels, reducing feelings of anxiety and stress. Now, as a staunch non-hugger, I’m not advocating going around giving stressed people a cuddle. But a discerning fist bump or the odd high five? Ban handshakes today, and where does it stop?

Let’s work on changing the beliefs around appropriate behaviour, rather than stripping a crucial element of human connection from our workplaces.

Banning the handshake? Stifling connection?

That’s going a bit bloody far.


Fun fact: Handshakes are thought to have originated in Greece in the 5th century B.C. (or medieval Europe, depending on which historian you ask) as a wrist clasp to show you weren’t concealing a dagger in your sleeve. Because nothing says “hello” in a less friendly manner than a sneaky blade between the ribs.