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RISE OF INDIVIDUALISM – HOLD THE TENSION – Print – Issue 211 – May 2022 | Article of the Week


Faced with a whole raft of operational, commercial and global challenges, another tension is emerging, which cannot be ignored. It is caused by the necessity for complex, collaborative working on a global and organisational scale, whilst at the same time, acknowledging the rise of individual freedom and autonomy. Organisationally, this has been exacerbated by hybrid working and changing mindsets – both a result of pandemic disruptions – but in truth, this a catalyst for something that has been percolating for years.

Hybrid as business as usual, presents organisations with something of a paradox. On the one hand it has the potential to offer greater opportunities for collaboration than ever before, bringing people together across functions, departments and geographical boundaries and leading to unprecedented levels of connectivity. But on the other hand, the changing force for individualism, flexibility and greater autonomy is compelling and cannot be ignored. At a macro level, there has been a growing recognition that we need these high levels of interdependence and connectivity. Collective and connected working has, however, had its downsides, as seen in a recent survey by HBR, with more than 1,500 respondents in 46 countries, which showed that burnout is rising, as the boundaries between work and home life blur. Indeed, 85 percent of respondents said that their wellbeing had declined, 30 percent said that they felt unable to maintain a strong connection with their family, 39 percent with colleagues and 50 percent with friends (Moss, 2021). As hybrid takes hold, there is also the danger of exclusion and the potential lack of a level playing field between home[1]workers and those who are mainly office based. Some employees feel resentment, stemming from their perception that work is being allocated unfairly, or that they have become ‘invisible’. This impacts on everyone’s willingness to seek advice or ask for help from others. Perhaps most significantly, the new work context we now find ourselves in has opened up opportunities for individuals to discover greater freedom, autonomy and better work/life balance. But if not managed carefully, there is a danger that this move towards individualism could give rise to a competitive, dog-eat-dog environment, threatening the progress that has been made on equality and inclusion, leading to mistrust, stress and lack of engagement. Going forward will require holding the tensions of both increasing connectivity across the organisation, whilst maintaining the individual freedom and autonomy, which employees have now become accustomed to. These are some of the key actions leaders and managers, with the support of HR, can take to achieve the necessary balance.

Understanding and adapting communication style: When we are working on delivering complex tasks in a hybrid environment, we need to recognise our own unique style and adapt our behaviour to complement others. Someone who is goal-oriented, for example, can disclose to others their preference for achieving objectives, as well as their personal difficulty with slow pace, reflection and silences. More reflective employees can explain why they need the space to discuss and develop new ideas as part of the group process.

Increase psychological safety: Given the loss of connection, it is important to invest more in a climate of psychological safety in which people can express themselves without fear of sanction. Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School argued that, leaders should not be afraid of showing vulnerability and should focus on learning oriented behaviours such as; asking questions, raising concerns, admitting mistakes and offering ideas.

Ensure cognitive diversity at all levels of the organisation: Effective and innovative teams and organisations are diverse. It’s important to recruit and build teams that have individuals that are not just diverse in terms of age, gender and national culture, but also have a different way of seeing and experiencing the world.

Learn from mistakes and failures: We are taught from early on in our careers, that in order to progress, we need to ‘play the game’ and win. However, our most profound learning and real confidence comes from mistakes.

Hold regular open forums: Businesses tend to focus on the more tangible aspects of organisational life, such as targets, actions and bottom-line performance. However, as we discovered during the pandemic, it’s important to organise forums where staff at all levels can discuss difficulties and concerns from a remote working perspective, including; in-person communication and anxieties about the future.

Understand what is real and what is not: When we are disconnected and lack the information that is naturally present in face-to-face interaction, we tend to compensate by creating internal ‘stories’ about the situation. Leaders need to find ways to connect so that they can distinguish between what is real (information, facts) and what is not (assumptions and fears).

Reset expectations: Leaders need to reset expectations with their team and key stakeholders, in order to avoid unnecessary conflict. This could include having regular meetings to discuss the ground rules of working together post pandemic, such as ‘how is my role shifting, what are the ‘open’ as well as the ‘hidden’ expectations around being at the office and the workload? How do we communicate and make decisions?’

Insist on staying connected and provide virtual working skills: As humans, our natural genetic make-up favours face-to[1]face connection. Where possible, aim to bring teams together. At the same time, it’s important not to lose some of the progress made via virtual connectivity. Our recent research (Lubitsh, Schofield, 2022) highlighted that employees are asking leaders to help them develop new skills on how to maintain connection with people working from home.

Be adaptable: Under pressure we tend to make thinking errors and our fears take us over into virtual fantasies such as; ‘people are not interested in my views’, or ‘no one is willing to help me’. Our thinking can become too rigid and we ‘become stuck on one solution’ and lose flexibility. People need to recognise when they get stuck in unhelpful patterns and know how to reach out to managers, colleagues and stakeholders.

Allow time for Micro Moments of connectivity (MMC): This means making time for yourself in a busy schedule to keep in touch outside of formal meetings with good colleagues and strategic partners, so that you can ask for and offer support.

Don’t give up on difficult conversations: The virtual space has made it easier to avoid difficult conversations. Use face-to-face opportunities to create the space for conversations on difficult strategic choices and any other painful decisions or issues.

Practice humility and show concern to others: Leaders need to be humble and praise others for their success. Google employees reported that managers who expressed interest and concern in other team members, outperformed their colleagues in both the quality and quantity of their work (Zak, 2017).

Since April 2021, four million workers have quit their jobs (EBN, 2002). In order to reverse this trend, HR should provide strategic insights to the board on the implications of the emerging hybrid models, especially on how to achieve the right balance between individual and organisational needs. Holding the tension between individual needs and organisational culture is vital. Focussing on one at the expense of the other will have negative consequences on both organisational talent pipeline and productivity


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