Three Tips to Prevent Fundamental Attribution Error From Destroying Cohesion on Our Remote Teams
Just as many were making plans to head back to the office, COVID-19 has surged around the world, sending many countries where the virus seemed to be under control back into lockdown. Faced with the reality that things are unlikely to return to “normal” anytime soon, many companies are making plans to take large portions of their workforce remote.
Facebook announced that it will take at least half of its workforce remote within the decade, and that it is currently aggressively recruiting remote workers. Likewise, Twitter and Square announced their intentions to allow all employees to permanently work from home. Tech companies aren’t the only ones. Nationwide recently announced that it would close five of its regional offices, shifting around 30% of the company's workforce to full-time remote work, with plans to expand that to 50% over time.
For many, the option to work from home is a welcome change from the culture of presenteeism that has dominated the workplace for decades. But remote work can also be challenging, especially for teams.
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“You aren’t working hard enough!”
My colleague and I have been working with a cross-functional leadership team for the past four months. Overall, they have done a nice job of getting aligned around their core purpose and priorities and re-orienting their operations to deal with significant business crises coming from COVID-19 and protests demanding racial justice around the world. They’ve kept their production facilities running and, for the most part, delivered for their customers.
But, these leaders were working long hours and dealing with multiple supply chain, process, and people issues. We started to hear grumbling from some members of the team.
In our last meeting, things finally boiled over. The exasperated Operations Head unloaded on one of his colleagues: "I'm busting my butt in the plant, getting up at 5:00 AM to keep production rolling and ensure that our people are safe! Meanwhile, you're safe and sound at home, and you aren't getting me the supplies I need or even giving me regular updates! You just aren't working hard enough or caring enough!"
Harsh? Perhaps. But at least it was out in the open.
Fundamental Attribution Error
When we’re stressed, our internal critic goes into overdrive. Our fight, flight, or freeze tendencies often hijack us, and we can move into reactionary, pre-programmed tendencies to find fault in others. And while we often allow ourselves grace based on our difficult context, we tend to attribute the actions (or inactions) of others to flaws in their character.
In psychology, this well-known phenomenon is called Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) – also known as Correspondence Bias. Left unchecked, it can cause unproductive conflict (hallway whispering, unspoken grudges, sarcasm, or passive-aggressive behavior) and can be a real culture killer for leadership teams. So, thank goodness it was on the table.
A coach or team leader should never overlook the hidden opportunity in an impassioned outburst. After acknowledging the courage it took for the Operations Head to speak his truth, we encouraged the target of his comments to share her reaction and more about her reality.
Fortunately, she was able to articulate with sensitivity the hurt she felt in the judgment. Then she shared her context. In addition to dealing with supply chains that had been dramatically interrupted, she was tasked with keeping four young children engaged in their lessons and managing food and care for her compromised father. To do so, she was starting her day at 4:00 AM and dropped into bed well past midnight, after a final round of emails.
With this additional context, her colleague was able to re-evaluate his assumptions, and the team had a healthy discussion about support and accountability.
How to Manage FAE and Build Cohesion on Your Remote Team
As a team leader, part of your challenge and opportunity during this crisis is to help your team hear and see each other in ways that build cohesion – a key component of strong team culture. Team cohesion (a sense of belonging and shared accountability), gives teams a collective energy boost to overcome major challenges and achieve breakthrough results. There are concrete, practical actions you can take as a team leader or team coach to intentionally build team cohesion.
1. Build acknowledgment and thanks into the front end of weekly meetings
I worked with a team a couple of years ago that was highly productive. Decisions were made efficiently, and accountability for results was driven by the team leader. What was missing was a feeling of acknowledgment for people's hard work and contributions. While she personally felt gratitude for their hard work, the leader was not creating space for people to feel and hear gratitude.
She introduced a 10-minute segment at the front end of all team meetings that allowed team members to spontaneously share feedback and acknowledgment for what had been achieved in the past week. While there was no expectation for everyone to speak, many did, and the energy boost was remarkable. You could feel the team cohesion building and the updraft it created as the team moved into discussing the priorities of the upcoming week.
2. Allow time in meetings for a genuine check-in on how things are going
Throughout the Coronavirus crisis and other business shocks, I have seen teams knuckle down in meetings to address change and transform how they operate as a business. Conversations have been crisp, and decision-making simplified to deal with rapid change. What has seemed missing from team meetings is a chance for people to check in with their colleagues about how they are coping with their personal and professional realities. This is particularly important as many of us are working remotely. While not every meeting needs a check-in, all leaders are humans that live full lives with successes and challenges. Purposeful time to share our reality is both therapeutic and builds cohesion.
3. Use breakout groups to allow all voices to be heard.
Team meetings with eight or more participants can make it hard for all voices to be heard. Consider using the tools available in online platforms like Zoom to Microsoft Teams to create break-out sessions where leaders can be more comfortable sharing sensitive topics or issues. You can create dialogue structures that give each group 2-3 questions to discuss as a small group with the understanding that all have a chance to share.
One I have been using with my clients is based on the Work That Reconnects framework developed by Joanna Macy. Each person has time to express their thoughts and feeling around four questions:
- What are you grateful for?
- What is keeping you up at night?
- What is inspiring you now?
- What are you inspired to act on?
Team cohesion is a secret sauce that underpins high-performing teams. It is also the kryptonite that breaks down the limiting and corrosive assumptions about other team members that are common challenges in remote workplaces. By taking the time to help team members express their concerns and understand each other’s context, you can achieve incredible team cohesion and, thus, outstanding team performance, even in difficult times.