As an HR manager, how would it make you feel if you knew employees were predisposed to work together harmoniously in teams?
Pretty good, huh? It would make your life – and that of your organization’s line managers – a good bit easier. To ensure high morale and productivity, all you’d have to do is tap into that existing fund of teamwork.
Well, you can now permit yourself to feel pretty good.
That’s because social and anthropological research shows that human beings are hard-wired to attach themselves to a group. We developed that way as a species. We learned to survive by attaching ourselves to others who could care for us in various ways.
Hitting the buttons
This research has immediate relevance for managers. It means that if you can hit the buttons that trigger “emotional attachment” in employees’ minds, you’ll be on your way to creating the kind of trust and cohesion that deliver minor miracles of group accomplishment.
It turns out that there are four main buttons available to smart managers:
1. Leadership commitment
Ever work for somebody who didn’t seem comfortable with their role as a leader? Who referred ironically to “management” or “the suits” even while ostensibly functioning as a manager? Who instead of explaining what needed to be done, said things like, “You’re adults; you figure it out”? Who habitually put off tough decisions?
If you ever did, you know how uncomfortable it made you feel. If the leader of the band isn’t taking their job seriously, how well is the band likely to make out – even survive?
Conversely, when you’re committed to being a good leader – to protecting and serving your team, so to speak – people feel your presence like an enveloping security blanket. They warm their hands at the fire of your energy. And they feel free of anxiety – free to give their best to the group.
2. Emotional availability
Leaders must “put themselves out there” if they want employees to attach themselves emotionally to the cause.
No, you don’t need to expose your most intimate, private feelings. Knowing your phobias or your fears won’t help employees. But you must keep your door open – metaphorically and literally – and be willing to engage your people on a personal level.
Managers who seldom make small talk, or are clearly uncomfortable while doing so, drive distance and detach employees emotionally. But managers who can credibly ask after the spouse and kids, or wonder how that big home improvement project is going, feed the tendency toward attachment that’s already present in the employee. Same for managers who can talk – modestly, of course – about their own latest project, or a book they’re enjoying.
3. ‘Insulation value’
“Attaching” managers insulate their employees, as much as possible, from outside stresses. Not-so-adept managers magnify these.
Example: The word is out at Ajax Fasteners that a competitor has introduced a product offering much higher performance than Ajax’s workhorse product. Employees are concerned about what this will mean for the company, and their jobs.
Manager X, a magnifier, worries aloud at team meetings about the competing product. He moans that top management is pressing him to identify cost cuts, in case profit margins start to slip.
Manager Y, an insulator, takes a different approach. She keeps her concerns to herself, and when asked directly, says it’s way too early to tell what the competing product will actually mean to Ajax. She also promises to keep her team informed.
In this way, Manager Y creates as safe a haven as there can be, given the circumstances, and fuels her employees’ desire to remain attached.
It’s tough to attach oneself to a moving target. Managers who appear to be changing their minds, and the team’s direction, from day to day or week to week will find their people detaching at a rapid clip. Predictability is comforting; inconsistency isn’t.
Certainly, don’t be afraid to change things up if circumstances dictate it. But far better to make the change in an orderly fashion, and consult the team about it beforehand.
Subscribe to the Leadership Blog
Get the latest research on workplace learning with weekly posts delivered to your inbox