Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

We’re not all in this together…and that’s okay

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Geoffrey Leonardelli

Organizations experimenting with new modes of flexible work must acknowledge, respect and cater to new and different group identities, according to a recent study published in Organizational Dynamics, titled “Lessons from a Crisis: Identity as a Means of Leading Remote Workforces Effectively.”

According to the paper, written by Geoffrey Leonardelli — a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the Rotman School of Management — understanding identity is key to voluntary compliance in a remote setting. Leonardelli explains that people have a tendency to define themselves and others by categories, often in terms of “us” versus “them,” such as leadership versus staff, remote versus in-office or colleagues versus the competition.

“Identity is often particularly impoverished in a remote workspace,” he says. “By calling attention to it, we're able to build greater connections.”

Leonardelli explains that in a traditional in-person workplace, managers can exercise greater power and control over staff. He warns that power and control aren’t very effective motivators in any setting, but are especially ineffective in a remote environment, as they can drive an emotional wedge between individuals and the organization that employs them.

“There's often the assumption that we're either in this together or we're at odds with each other, and the message I hope to communicate is that it's never that simple,” Leonardelli says. “We have to recognize that we have different interests and different needs, and that we want to work together taking into account those differences.”

To overcome the cultural and community-related challenges of remote work Leonardelli believes leaders need to shed the “we’re all in this together” mentality — which rose to prominence during the pandemic — in favour of one that acknowledges individual differences and needs.

For example, leaders often think of their remote workforce as a single group, but Leonardelli emphasizes that its unwise to assume everyone’s remote work situation is the same. Some might work best in a coffee shop, others have set up an office halfway around the world, while others must balance family care obligations. 

“We're talking about the needs that a collective might require, but organizations also benefit by making it more personalized, exploring and opening up a conversation with individual employees to see what their circumstance might be, and how the leader or manager can accommodate those needs,” he says.

In other words, rather than pursuing uniformity, leadership should strive to acknowledge, understand and support their team members’ differences.

“There's another difference too; employees see managers as different from them,” he says. “It's important that they do, because they can recognize how you are serving a different function than they are.”

Some of the proactive steps recommended in the paper include giving “them” greater autonomy, such as by redefining goals for asynchronous work, empower remote work, or being selective about team meetings. The paper also recommends building honest intergroup relations by addressing difficult events directly, creating opportunities for professional growth, and allowing for employee self-expression; and allowing leaders to express vulnerability.

Rather than seeking to address each employee’s individual needs, which may not be possible in larger organizations, leaders should also strive to build a culture and implement systems that encourage sub-groups and peer support networks. 

By catering to the needs of the individual, and by encouraging individuals to create sub-groups with others that have similar needs, Leonardelli says leaders can foster greater trust and a stronger connection to the organizational collective.

“Leaders can be more proactive in creating an environment where we feel a sense of community, we feel connected to each other, while also recognizing the differences within that community,” he says. “This is where you move to ‘and,’ rather than seeing it as ‘either/or.'”

In practical terms Leonardelli says that means leaders should create opportunities to facilitate a shared sense of identity, to come together and bond with other members of the organization, while also designating some space for personal expression. He adds that supporting those self-expressions and embracing our differences ultimately fosters a greater sense of inclusiveness.

“It speaks to principles of diversity,” he adds. “This notion of dual-identity is helpful not only for leading people effectively, whether remote or in a physical place of work, but it’s also about creating an inclusive, diverse workplace.”

Geoffrey Leonardelli is a professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, with a cross-appointment to the department of psychology.