After a year of working from home, it has become apparent that once-strong bonds between leaders and their teams have become strained. As we phase back into office-based work, executives must endeavour to reaffirm these relationships of mutual respect and trust. These connections will be a potent source when it comes to rebuilding our organisations from now into the future.
Anyone who has worked in an office knows what I mean when I say that, sometimes, a team just clicks.
There is no set recipe for this sort of interpersonal team-wide chemistry. Sometimes, it just happens. Try as they might, theorists are unable to provide a rulebook that, if followed closely, will engender the sense of community that makes each and every employee love coming (or, in a world of flexible working arrangements, Zooming) into work each day. The beauty of these teams is that they develop organically; you cannot be sure whether a team will click but, when it does, you can feel it. And your workplace is better for it.
Acknowledging that there will never be a step by step guide, this does not mean that leaders are rudderless when it comes to fostering these sorts of connections between themselves and the rest of their team. Even though there will never be any guarantees, such is the nature of human emotion, there is plenty of psychological research on which leaders can model their behaviour.
Of course, luck plays a part. But, it would be remiss of leaders to not attempt to improve their chances of success.
Wanda T. Wallace, writing for Strategy + Business, discusses the potentially drastic repercussions of failing to establish this type of rapport within teams. She draws on Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks’ ‘Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t and Why’ to illustrate how leaders are naturally biased towards people who are similar to them. For example, if you are a white man, then (subconsciously) you may prefer the work of a white male junior who you have familiarity with rather than someone else you do not feel connected to. Not only does this limit an organisation’s potential to diversify its future C-suite, it demonstrates that, unless a leader actively strives to bridge gaps with all members by fostering a healthy team culture, he or she may limit the potential of the group and individuals within.
Now more than ever, leaders must seek to cultivate these communal bonds. Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdown has wreaked havoc upon team dynamics. In fact, research from Pattnaik and Kesari Jena suggests that there is a correlation between remote work and disconnect from formerly close-knit colleagues. It is not that specific relationships between team members have turned sour since we have transitioned to Teams and Zoom; rather, the issue is one of distance. Like a budding plant, it takes concerted effort and nutrients for a relationship to bear fruit. The experience of seeing people every day, sharing moments of stress and happiness, is what builds chemistry. If you take the personal connection out of a team, you are not left with much. Leaders must urgently tend to their colleagues so that they can begin thriving again.
Wallace argues that this process begins and ends with building networks of trust through “shared interests and common styles.” Through similarities, we develop comfort and shatter awkward barriers that can keep people apart. The key lesson for leaders is to listen and observe. It takes focused effort to determine how a team member is thinking and feeling. By taking an empathetic approach to leadership, executives can meet the needs of particular individuals, thereby developing strong, trusting relationships.
Executives have no time to lose. Each day that we spend emotionally disconnected from our teams is a day where we haven’t worked to our full potential. The sooner we reaffirm our team members’ bonds with one another, the better.