Divided we fall

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, social distancing has suddenly created a new army of remote and home-based workers. Internal communicators have responded by sharing tactics, content and technology solutions in an attempt to bridge the divide and build ‘engagement’ with employees at a time when engagement is not the issue that needs to be addressed. The solutions to reconnecting remotely working colleagues are to be found in an understanding of human psychology and overcoming the negative behaviours this can catalyse in a divided workforce.

Years ago, I was sent on a management and leadership course. No doubt you will have attended something similar where you were encouraged or compelled to participate in a number of group exercises and workshops designed to reveal the mysteries of how to get the best out of people and teams through personal self-discovery.

One of the course exercises has stuck in my mind to this day. It bubbled up to the surface again this week as I grappled with the conundrum of communicating with employees in an organisational structure suddenly blown apart and divided by the coronavirus crisis as everyone began to work from home.   

Division is dangerous

In this exercise the course attendees were split into two groups, given the same problem-solving task to complete and physically separated into two distant rooms. We were supplied with some information to help us with the task, but this was incomplete. The rest of it had been given to the other group, and my group had some information which the other needed. We were given a few hours to solve the problem and come up with a solution and three opportunities to send a team member to trade information with the other groups’ representative.

What an excellent opportunity to demonstrate collaboration between two parts of a separated team you might be thinking, but that’s not what happened. Instead, in just a few hours a curious suspicion and rivalry developed between the two groups resulting in the third opportunity to trade information being rejected by both and a collective and miserable failure to successfully complete the task.

The learning points? Well, dividing groups of people in any way by introducing either physical or organisational boundaries (including organising them into teams) is dangerous. It can have unintended consequences, manifesting group behaviours and thinking which drive misunderstandings, rivalry and a devaluation of the purpose of others. What I learnt on that course was that part of the skill set of a good manager or leader is being able to stop this behaviour and thinking erupting by helping people communicate and collaborate effectively to break down organisational barriers between teams and individuals. If we are unable to do this the result is chaos and collective failure – divided we fall.

The way we are made

Fundamentally it is our human psychology that fuels those basic and primitive instincts to compete with others for resources and information to survive and succeed. In an organisational context we see this happening all the time, we call it office politics and it is rarely productive. We have also recently seen it manifesting itself in the world outside of the workplace as the Covid-19 pandemic has created mass fear and distrust resulting in panic buying and the hoarding of food, medicine and other essential (and not so essential) items. Unfortunately, it’s just basic human nature and people doing what comes naturally when they are scared or stressed. This is the real threat to communication and collaboration in the workplace and elsewhere during this crisis, and not the physical barriers that have suddenly divided us. It is the way we are made which presents the greatest risk to collective success.

The way people are organised in the workplace can be both an enabler of, or risk to, achieving organisational objectives. The more barriers and silos there are in the organisational structure, the more likelihood that the suspicion and rivalry behaviours I witnessed in my group exercise will manifest themselves to the detriment of everyone if they are not understood and mitigated.

Suddenly having to adopt widespread remote homeworking to comply with social distancing policies has just made organisational structures even more complex. It has erected infinite numbers of barriers between employees and transformed the risk of organisational failure, driven by negative behaviours which crush collaboration, into a major issue.

Engagement isn’t the issue

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen lots of internal communicators, consultancies, agencies and technology vendors sharing information, resources and tactics to help break down barriers to maintain and build ‘engagement’ amongst suddenly scattered homeworking workforces. There has been some excellent material shared, but I don’t think that looking at this problem through the opaque lens of engagement and framing the solution in this way is particularly helpful. Engagement is such a diffuse concept, and dare I say an immeasurable objective that we weren’t really any good at either defining or measuring even before the coronavirus crisis began.

Much of the material shared has also focused on content and channels, but again, I don’t think that we can resolve this problem by just focusing on more elaborate content pushed down more (and in some cases) entirely new channels. We will also not be saved by technology or software. While this can mediate and liberate the flow of information, it will not necessarily drive the right behaviours amongst employees on its own. 

Instead, the problem appears to me to be grounded in basic human psychology and the negative behaviours which that could manifest in our new working world of divided and isolated environments.  

Fight psychology with psychology  

It’s by no accident the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK has been shaped by advice from not only the medical profession but also from behavioural psychologists. You can clearly see this in some of the messaging. ‘Protect the NHS’ is a message that wasn’t just conjured up during a water cooler conversation between politicians. It appeals to a deep-rooted affection and respect that most people in the UK have for their health service. It’s grounded in insight and designed to drive the right behaviours in the general population – remember the success of the Brexit Leave campaign?

For years, governments around the world have turned to behavioural insights supplied by psychologists and behavioural scientists to help them deeply understand audiences to then successfully implement policies and drive change in all sorts of settings and situations. In the UK, they are known as The Behavioural Insights Team or more popularly ‘The Nudge Unit’ and some of the changes that have been driven and achieved through their insight work are extraordinary. 

Perhaps, as internal communicators we should be taking a cue from the governments tack and not simply thinking about how we can reconnect suddenly remote and distanced colleagues to each other and their organisations using a tactical approach based solely on content, channels and technology.

Internal communication tactics are rarely successful in the absence of a framing communications strategy and maybe we should also be using some behavioural insights to shape a more strategic communications approach to drive the right behaviours in suddenly remote workers, and to combat the more negative ones.

Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely

The good news is that we don’t all have to suddenly become a behavioural psychologist to take a more insight driven approach to internal communication in our abruptly dispersed organisations.

There is an excellent model developed by the Behavioural Insights Team that can help you to really understand your audiences. It can then shape your thinking and stop you from immediately dropping into tactical mode to try and connect remote and home working employees as this crisis continues. The EAST model focuses on helping you to use insights to think about how to make communication tactics, channels, content and technology more effective and impactful through the concepts of Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. It’s a great tool and one which I have used successfully in the past.

We need to be using a little more insight driven thinking, and blending this with some of the great ideas that have recently been shared about tactics, channels, content and technology to communicate with a new army of remote workers. By doing so we will more effectively avoid the negative behaviours which could be catalysed amongst employees suddenly divided by remote working, and which potentially threaten the success of the organisations they work in.   

We live in difficult and strange times, but despite some of the overwhelming challenges we face it is possible to bridge the divide with great internal communication to reconnect our colleagues, protect their mental health and secure organisational success by using an insight based, rather than a purely tactical communications approach.

United we stand!


Image by Conger Design from Pixabay 

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