Fear: the enemy of collaboration

Improving or enhancing collaborative working is often one of the main reasons for choosing to implement a social intranet but all too often companies fail to get virtual teams and collaborative ways of working off the ground. Why? There must be a reason why it is difficult to encourage virtual teams when you provide all the tools to facilitate it?

The answer is just that; providing tools does not equal success. According to Gartner research of 400 organisations, simply providing a social platform and just expecting good things to happen fails about 90% of the time. Yet this is an all too common approach.

So if they have the tools, what is preventing your staff from communicating and collaborating online or indeed at all? One of the main barriers we come up against is user fear. Fear of being spied on, fear of being honest, fear of being wrong, fear of being right, fear of trying things, fear of asking questions. Afraid to show vulnerability; afraid to admit they don’t know all the answers.

So what is it about fear that hinders our ability to work cooperatively and why are your users so afraid?

Trust – the missing link

Trust plays a huge part in combating the fears mentioned. If staff trust their manager, their leaders and their organisation, appearing vulnerable to them does not induce fear. If however your organisation has a culture of valuing the bottom line over employee wellbeing, blame, secrecy, power-struggling, pitting staff against each other and knowledge hoarding then your staff are far less likely to want to expose themselves publicly.

In the early Noughties a neuroeconomist and Claremont University professor, Dr Paul Zak designed an experiment to test whether there is a biochemical basis for trustworthiness. In it two people are paid $10 to participate in an experiment. Person A is asked whether he wants to give Person B a portion of his $10 (a stranger he only communicates with via computer, knowing that the amount he sends will be tripled). Person B then has the option of sending a portion of the money back to Person A.

Traditional theory says that Person A will not trust the stranger (Person B) to share the spoils and will opt to simply keep his original $10. However, Dr Zak’s experiment showed a high percentage of people will both send and return some money. Why?

In Dr Zak’s game, the subjects’ blood was tested before and after for oxytocin. His findings showed that Person B’s levels of the hormone increased in proportion to the money received (indicating that he was trusted) and this in turn motivated Person B to return some money (indicating he was trustworthy).

So clearly oxytocin plays a significant role in trusting and feeling trusted and according to a white paper by Unify, small actions can trigger the release of oxytocin. Physical contact like a hug. Praise and reward. Clear displays of fairness. Shows of empathy and vulnerability by your manager. A ‘like’ or positive comment on a document, post or blog you’ve written.

Clearly it would be very easy for a switched on manager to work on their soft skills like treating staff fairly and with care, asking for help, admitting they don’t have all the answers, interacting with their posts online and praising good work. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But all too often this is not the case. Why? Is it because businesses downplay the importance of soft skills and that’s why so few leaders and executives are women (who have more oxytocin naturally than men) ? An article in The Independent in 2013, reported that numbers of female executives in business and industry are falling with just three female CEOs heading FTSE 100 companies. Barely 1 executive director in 20 (5.8 per cent) was a woman, a fall from 6.6 per cent in 2012, while 15.3 per cent of positions filled by women in the tier below the board was lower in 2013 than six years previously – but that’s a different blog…

The fear factor (and what it does to your brain)

A study by UCLA showed that social and physical pain produce similar brain responses. When people feel excluded (describing feelings of anger, being snubbed, judged and disliked) their brain shows almost identical activity as if they had been physically hurt.

As mammals we are hugely social creatures and indeed from an evolutionary perspective, being socially connected to those responsible for our care and wellbeing ensured survival. Traditionally, the workplace was a pure exchange of labour for financial reward but as the boundaries between work and home continue to blur and your staff likely spend more time at work with their colleagues and managers than they do at home with their families and friends, it is easy to assume that we now see our place of work as part of our social system. Being reprimanded, made to feel mistrusted or disregarded at work is felt as keenly as it would be falling out with a friend or spouse and is as painful as a physical blow. That stress causes physical illness is not news, indeed the physical effects of stress are well documented.

Staff learn to put up with environments such as these but it is at the cost of engagement and commitment. Lack of engagement and commitment in staff does not hold much promise for collaborative working. No-one is going to give anything of themselves if they fear the consequences. Any element of threat triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response in the brain, making it impossible to think creatively and putting a firm lid on open sharing, honesty and cooperation. It is for this reason that personal social media usage (Facebook, Twitter etc) is no indication of social intranet adoption. Personal social networks are communities of trust. We friend people we know and follow people we like; it is a safe environment where we know what we say will be accepted because those reading it are PLU (People Like Us). The same cannot always be said in the work environment.

Organisational change in alignment with new tools

So returning to the very first statement – providing tools does not equal collaborative success. Change needs to occur within the organisation (or at very least the team) before it will translate online and there are some basic concepts to consider:

  1. Define the goal to be achieved. After all if you don’t know where you’re going, how can you plan a route there?
  2. Provide the right leadership. The head of the team needs not only to lead by example in using the tools provided (and make sure he/she interacts, comments, likes) but also polish up those soft skills like praising, rewarding, including, being fair, not reprimanding, encouraging and showing vulnerability.
  3. Define the roles and responsibilities. Get the right people with the right skills on the team; don’t include political or honorary members. Ensure everyone knows what their role is and what they are individually responsible for and get the entire team to agree that they are accountable for the success. To care enough to succeed, nominal responsibility will not do. But that doesn’t mean drastic consequences if things don’t go right; it means owning the failures equally to the successes and committing to do-over if things go wrong.
  4. Encourage the right mind-set. Set an easy-to-reach short term goal and celebrate it loudly. Then encourage the team to set their own medium and long term goals. Praise the achievements and milestones. Align personal goals to professional goals. Encourage honesty and vulnerability; if you’re the leader you must start. Remember the $10 experiment? If you show you can be trusted, others will trust you ergo if you show you trust them, they can trust you. Why not bring the virtual team together physically or by web-conference to kick things off in a fun way? Keep the momentum going (an email update now and then or an infrequent conference call will not cut it) by being part of the online team; engaging, interacting, posting and replying.
  5. Be HUMAN! Guess what? I’m not a robot and neither are you. So don’t pretend you are. Be your authentic self and don’t hold back. Everyone can learn from you and you can learn from everyone else.