Authored by: Emma Williams, Consultant, PBC
As the Government ramps up the social distancing guidelines and offices move towards working from home, many of us are already feeling the pangs of social isolation. And who could blame us? Humans are innately social creatures, inherently wired to seek connection with others. Indeed, according to social psychologist Matthew Lieberman our need for social connection is as fundamental as our need for food and water*. Back in the days of roaming the savanna, belonging to a group was essential for survival. Hence, according to evolutionary psychology theory, the need for social connection has been passed down from our ancestors as a fundamental survival adaptation.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that reduced social connection has an impact on our mental health, physical wellbeing and workplace effectiveness.
Empirical research links social connection with lower rates of depression, greater life expectancy, greater memory capacity, and perhaps most importantly in the current climate, greater immune function**.
But despite our hardwired need to connect, for some of us, social distancing in not a new response to crisis. In fact, for many, social distancing is a natural, long-held response to stress. Karen Horney (1950) summarised three go to responses that humans (often unconsciously) apply to manage feelings of threat or insecurity:
- Moving away from people- Managing one’s feelings of inadequacy by avoiding contact with others
- Moving against people – Managing one’s self-doubts by dominating and intimidating others
- Moving towards people – Managing one’s insecurities by building alliances
But if we are wired to seek connection with others, why is it the case that so many of us respond to threat by acting in ways that push others away? Perhaps it is because our coping responses to pressure are largely automatic. Indeed, our go to responses to stress tend to be based on belief systems formed during childhood on what to expect from others during times of crisis. These belief systems, or schemas, operate outside of conscious awareness, filtering how we view and respond to the world. Individuals that exhibit “moving away” style stress responses often had early experiences of others not meeting their needs. As such, an expectation was formed early in life that others cannot be trusted or relied upon to provide support in times of uncertainty. Individuals with a “moving away” stress response might have an underlying unconscious belief that, when the chips are down, the most dependable person is oneself.
So if we know that social connection is important for our physical and mental health, but we also know that social distancing might be one of our natural responses to crisis, how can we ensure that we are leading in ways that don’t add water to an already overflowing pot? Undoubtably, in an environment of heightened uncertainty, economic instability and rationing of toilet paper, we are likely to see an exaggeration of these behaviours as we turn to our automatic, tried and tested responses for coping with stress.
Fortunately, if we are aware of our behavioural tendencies, we are more able to adjust them. In the words of John Whitmore; “I am able to control only that of which I am aware. That which I am unaware controls me”***. Understanding our go-to stress responses is the first step to ensuring that we are behaving in productive and supportive ways during times of stress.
The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) breaks down the “moving away” response into 5 patterns of behaviour that create distance between oneself and others by withdrawing or pushing others away.
Below are some tips on what to watch out for and how to manage each of these:
Becoming easily discouraged or frustrated.
Excitable leaders push others away during times of pressure by expressing emotions in unproductive ways or by fluctuating between enthusiasm and disappointment. Unmanaged, the psychological safety of the team is impacted as they begin to feel like they are walking on eggshells.
Tip: Have strategies in place to manage your own anxiety.
Remember that it’s natural to be feeling a heightened sense of stress right now. Try to think of the long-term perspective, be aware of your triggers and have some strategies in place to manage your anxiety so that you can project stability and calm to others. Others will be looking to you right now to gauge how stressed they should be feeling. Regardless of what emotions are brewing inside, it’s important to give others a sense that the current situation is under control by showing confidence and composure.
A tendency to be overly mistrustful and alert for signs of mistreatment.
Sceptical leaders push others away by coming across as critical, fault-finding and cynical during times of stress. With a tendency to focus more on threat than opportunity, when unmanaged this tendency can disempower staff if new ideas are shot down before being adequately explored or if a lack of trust is displayed.
Tip: Show trust, be encouraging
Be aware of your tendency to focus on the negatives. Try and reframe your language to ensure you appear engaged and encouraging when ideas are presented to you. With staff working from home, it will be particularly important to demonstrate a sense of trust. People work harder, are more productive and feel more engaged when they feel trusted and heard****.
Becoming overly concerned about making a mistake or being criticised.
During times of stress, this tendency can play out as indecision, resistance to change, and heightened risk aversion. Cautious leaders push others away by adding to uncertainty. Humans are wired to behave in ways that reduce uncertainty. As it happens, research shows that people would rather definitely have an electric shock than take the chance of possibly having one later*****. In turbulent times, we look to our leaders to create a greater sense of stability. Successful leaders act quickly and show agility and decisiveness.
Tip: Show assertiveness, act decisively
If the Cautious stress response sounds like you, try to challenge the belief that mistakes signify a failure on you. Whilst it’s good to do your research before making big decisions, be careful of due diligence without action. You might not be able to get all the answers during this uncertain time. Your team will appreciate a clear, good enough solution rather than a longer wait in ambiguity.
Withdrawing from others.
Reserved leaders physically and/or emotionally pull away from others during times of pressure. Shifting their focus to tasks rather than people, unmanaged, this tendency can come across as an insensitivity or indifference to people issues. In times of pressure, Reserved leaders may appear MIA when most needed.
Tip: Be visible and available
When leading remote teams, it is important to communicate frequently and ensure that others feel kept in the loop. Others are likely feeling confused, worried and uncertain right now. Consider how you might structure in time to check-in and provide emotional support for your team. Encourage the use of video chat and include unstructured time in your virtual meetings to create opportunities for informal connection.
Appearing overtly friendly and cooperative, but privately acting to one’s own agenda.
Leisurely leaders create barriers between themselves and others by focusing more on their own agenda than the team’s agenda. They may present as overtly agreeable, but privately stubborn. Unmanaged, this tendency can lead individuals to develop a reputation of being unreliable as others notice an inclination to give lip service and not follow through on promises.
Tip: Be transparent
With communication moving to virtual platforms, clear, transparent communication is critical for minimising uncertainty for others and letting them know where they stand. Limit promises made to others to those that can be delivered. Be clear and transparent in your communication. Delaying or avoiding difficult conversations often creates greater problems in the long run. Consider how you can build trust within your team by seeking others’ opinions and providing assistance where possible.
All of us have our go to responses for dealing with stress and uncertainty. If your natural tendency is to move away from others, self-awareness and being able to adapt your behaviours to meet the needs of our rapidly changing environment could be the difference between driving cohesion or enabling further disconnection. With a physical barrier already pulling leaders a step back from their teams, the more effective leaders will be the ones that manage their own stress responses, pivot quickly, adapt to the new environment and find new ways to connect and engage with others, even when doing so might be against their natural instinctive responses.
To learn more about the Hogan Development Survey and understand your own behaviours under stress, click here.
* Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. OUP Oxford.
*** Whitmore, J. (2010). Coaching for performance: growing human potential and purpose: the principles and practice of coaching and leadership. Hachette UK.
***** Badia, P., McBane, B., & Suter, S. (1966). Preference behavior in an immediate versus variably delayed shock situation with and without a warning signal. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 72(6), 847.