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IT Leadership // IT Strategy
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7/29/2014
12:56 PM
David Wagner
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Doing Business Without Handshakes

Handshakes make us feel comfortable in business settings -- and spread germs that make us sick. Perhaps it's time for a new custom.

Consider this an early warning for the flu season: Stop shaking hands! In a little more than two months, your co-workers will be facing a germy gauntlet of doorknobs, subway poles, bathroom stalls, and even family members. If you want to help your colleagues stay healthy, spend the next eight weeks eliminating handshakes and hugs, learn to limit the high fives, and try your best to switch to all fist bumps.

Why am I sharing these tips now? Well, partially to give you time to break habits, but mostly because a new study says that you spread 20 times more germs by handshake than by fist bump. You need to make changes not only with your team, but also in the way that you do business, because the handshake is surprisingly valuable.

The study, conducted at the Institute of Biological, Environmental, and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University in Wales, asked volunteers to wear rubber gloves dunked in a solution of e coli. The volunteers then gave each other a handshake, a high five, or a fist bump. The fist bump was found to be 20 times more hygienic than the handshake and 10 times more hygienic than a high five.

The study didn't test this handshake, but I'm guessing it was 100 times worse than all the others.

All kidding aside, there are two competing sides to this issue. One estimate places the cost of sick workers to the US economy at $576 billion. Thirty-nine percent of that figure applies to workers who are sick but still show up and are less productive. Doing anything you can to keep your team healthy can save your company money and improve productivity while keeping key folks at their desks.

[Keep your team healthy and become an office hero. Read How To Be An Office Hero: 3 Myths, Busted.]

On the other hand, the handshake is a valuable business tool. There's a reason we greet colleagues and partners with handshakes and conclude business deals with them. The handshake is hardwired into our brains. Shaking someone's hand doesn't just make you trust someone more (it has actually been known to lower perception of risk in aggressive business deals); it literally triggers happy feelings in your brain.

A study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience studied the value of the handshake in a business setting by showing people animated clips of mock business meetings. Handshakes were included in some of those clips, but not in others. The researchers used a functional MRI, among other equipment, to measure how participants' brains responded to the transactions. When a clip involved a handshake, areas of the brain associated with finding people competent and trustworthy were stimulated.

All people conduct an approach/avoid assessment when seeing a new situation. The study found that a handshake triggered the approach response more often, and a lack of handshake triggered the avoid response. Most intriguingly, watching two people shake hands triggered the same part of the brain that's triggered when a person is being physically touched. This feeling is associated with comfort.

In other words, the handshake is a major part of business success. We have no idea if a fist bump carries the same value. Perhaps it's just simple human touch of any kind that does it. Perhaps the closer contact of the handshake provides that feeling of trust.

Business is better with handshakes, but is it some subset of $576 billion better? If we all agreed on the new norm of the fist bump, would it even itself out?

There's no ready answer to any of these questions, which is why I'm giving you the rest of the summer to think about it. One thought might be to eliminate handshakes on your team but keep them for customers. But trust within your team is important, too. Another thought is simply to keep a polite distance and not initiate any contact. Let's face it; you aren't going to greet new business contacts with a fist bump. They'll think you're crazy.

What do you think? Shake hands and face/spread an onslaught of germs? Avoid contact? Fist bump? Wave? What would you do?

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/4/2014 | 1:12:39 PM
Re: Sacrifice...
Don't you think a fist bump is too casual for business encounters? I still think we could just nod or bow like the Japanese do. It's respectful, and you don't have to dash off to apply hand sanitizer.


@Glenbren- Well, the interesting thing is that something is as formal and respectful as society decides it is. If we as a group we started heading towards the fist bump in a decade or two it would be so normal people would forget that we used to shake hands. The first time I got hugged in a business setting it blew my mind. I've noticed it occuring more regularly. I'm *almost* used to it.
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
7/31/2014 | 10:26:06 PM
Re: Sacrifice...
Two cheeks could be a double source of germ spreading--maybe a double fist bump will  keep everyone healthy in the winter!
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
7/31/2014 | 3:17:13 PM
Reciprocal bumps
 

Dave I once worked for someone who would only fist bump. It was his standard greeting I have never personally initiated a fist bump in a professional setting but it's worth thinking about. I would be concerned about offending a client or associate. I think you need a certain level of familiarity with the person to initiate the fist bump. Sanitizer may be the other answer!
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
7/31/2014 | 11:34:27 AM
Re: Sacrifice...
@Glenbren: My guess is that it has something to do with the nonverbal communication that happens in a handshake, from the posture to the contact. Touch is a powerful communicator. Funny thing is, I've found that it's not unusual here in California for hugs to be exchanged in lieu of handshakes once you've reached a certain level of familiarity with a person. (Not in a creepy way). 
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
7/30/2014 | 7:57:45 PM
Re: Sacrifice...
@DM Romano: You are once again the voice of reason here. We have survived this long with the hand-shaking ritual, I suppose it will take more than a few pesky germs transferred during a handshake to bring about the end times. 
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
7/30/2014 | 7:55:58 PM
Re: Is This From the Onion or the Daily Currant?
@asksqn: Gross, but true. Maybe we should all start carrying those CSU UV lights that detect bodily fluids and subject each person we meet to a blast of light before we shake hands. Or, even better, use those swab things that they use at the airport security to detect any traces of suspicious chemicals on one's hands. If we can do that, surely we can have a swab that detects viruses.

Might ruin the warm-and-fuzzies of the typical business meeting, though, if we ask people to swab first, shake later.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/30/2014 | 3:23:19 PM
Re: Doing Business Without Handshakes
@zerox203- Thanks for the support. Yes, that was my point. 

I admit that I've written about more important things, but the social nroms around business matter. 

At any rate, I love your story. I can totally imagine an entire conference vibing, at least for a day or two, on a special secret "handshake." There is real value in that kind of exclusiveness. Maybe a team air shake for all the times your team forgets to wash its hands would be valuable not only for keeping healthy but building teamwork.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/30/2014 | 3:19:30 PM
Re: This is REALLY hard to do
@Chris- Ha! I've had that situation, too. I had to meet an extreme VIP (can't share who it is). I mean this was the biggest meeting of my life at that point. I had a cold. So I spent the day before guzzling all sorts of medicine and vitamins trying to get better. And then the morning of the meeting I swallowed a whole medicine cabinet of things so I didn't cough on the VIP and used so much hand sanitizer that I probably rubbed off my fingerprints.

The funniest part? The VIP came into the room, shook my hand and promptly coughed all over me and the room. She coughed for an hour into her hand and then she reached out and shook my hand again at the end of the meeting. 

*That* is why you can't just count on handwashing to save the day. :)
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
7/30/2014 | 10:14:47 AM
This is REALLY hard to do
I've had a cold for two weeks. Last Friday I was at an all-day editorial conference, and I made it a point not to shake anyone's hand -- "I have a cold, so I'll spare you the handshake" I said about 50 times. It felt awkward, and there was a temptation every time on my end to just shake hands. 

But I will say -- 90% of the time, the response I got from peopel was identical: "Thank you." They said it out loud that they appreciated it. So while awkward on my end, everyone appreciated it.  
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/29/2014 | 1:15:56 PM
Re: or...
@Tom- Sure, and actually I should have mentioned that. Thanks for bringing that up. But I wrote under the assumption that there are times when you just can't either because there is no where around to do it, time, forgetfulness, etc.
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