Leadership - Staying Socially Distanced but Psychologically Connected | Thomas.co

Leadership - Staying Socially Distanced but Psychologically Connected

As lockdown continues with no real end in sight its vital for leaders to avoid team disintegration and keep people engaged, motivated and productive. This article is based on scientific research and offers some ideas for leaders and managers to improve their ‘social smarts’, take action to stay psychologically connected, and emerge a stronger team than before.

As a psychologist the current global lockdown confirms for me one psychological absolute – human beings are primarily social beings with a profound and ancient need to be connected to others - note the explosion in use of social media platforms FaceTime, Zoom and House Party. Isolation can be painful and being a valued member of a tribe, a community, a team has always been critical for survival - it’s natural during lockdown to feel distress.

As humans, the primitive social drive is ‘safety in numbers’, and as a consequence our ancestors evolved specific ‘social circuits’ - hard-wired in the brain and designed to keep us bonded and connected to each other – a form of ‘social intelligence’. Great leaders use their emotional and social intelligence to build stronger psychological connections and drive motivation and engagement.

In the modern workplace our ‘social circuits’ manifest themselves in a handful of personal needs, internal drivers and group behaviours:

Belong icon

1. Need to belong


In successful groups people feel safe and secure through relationships that offer trust, support and togetherness. In the workplace trust is the glue and fundamentally means - “I’ve got your back - you can count on me - I value what’s important to you!”. Great leaders will use the physical distance of lockdown to emotionally connect to their team – “there is a common enemy, we are all in this together!”

Trust is built on knowledge, so take this opportunity and commit to regular one-to-ones with each of your team. Make conversations less about work and more about them. Everyone has a story, find out ‘what makes them tick’, what do you have in common? Hold regular team meetings and make time to share lockdown experiences, use the opportunity to build team collateral. Encourage team members to talk to each other and set up social media groups outside the formal work systems.



2. Need for acceptance

Our personal safety and status in any group is evaluated through our sense of acceptance. In the workplace we know we are ‘one of the team’ when our opinions are valued and acted upon, and others listen to and respect what we say. Our voice is literally an expression of how much we are included and accepted by our colleagues.

As a leader use this time to genuinely listen to your team and give them a voice. Canvass their opinions and ideas, task them to think of ways to raise efficiency or develop a way to further delight customers. If you are feeling brave, ask them how you could be a better leader! The point here is great leaders genuinely listen more than speak and act on others’ views and proposals – bonding people to the team and its purpose. 



3. Need for achievement

Most people seek opportunities to achieve and succeed – it feels good and instils a sense of pride. As an individual, winning for the team and feeling valued by others reduces anxiety and increases our sense of security. As many businesses currently struggle to operate normally, great leaders recognise the frustration in their teams and create fresh challenges and opportunities for people to experience success.

Design novel challenges for your team, get them to: research a piece of information, deliver a presentation, solve a complex problem. Alternatively make challenges more fun, get creative and set tasks that require invention, imagination and innovation e.g. challenge team members to design a children’s fun activity, run an online quiz or talent show! Create competitive opportunities to experience regular wins, victories and triumphs within the team.



 4. Need for independence

Whilst we naturally gather in groups for the greater good, humans crave to express their individuality and diversity. In the modern workplace people have a desire for autonomy, they want to use their creativity and initiative, to be trusted with the responsibility to make decisions and choose how best to do their work. Paradoxically, the problem of lockdown is work can suddenly offer too much freedom, potentially leading to lower productivity. Great leaders are aware that remote workers need clear structure, defined aims and clear expectations.

Work with your team to agree realistic work schedules to take account of the increased demands from family and working from home. Set specific short-term goals and aims, discuss appropriate levels of responsibility, supervision and support. Check your team have all the resources they need and constantly manage expectations.



 5. Need for clarity

Ambiguity and uncertainty raise threat and therefore fear and anxiety. To feel secure in the workplace, people need to understand clearly what is expected of them, how things fit together, the purpose of their work, and the difference it makes. During lockdown anxieties are raised further as people genuinely fear for their lives and the future of their families, jobs and homes! Great leaders understand the value of clarity in driving motivation and engagement and reducing anxiety.

During lockdown keep a focus on team members specific roles and goals, use the opportunity to discuss responsibilities, expectations and deliverables. Talk to the team about your role within the overall business strategy. Acknowledge the uncertainty around post-lockdown but remain optimistic about the future. Whatever you do – don’t go silent! At WorkplaceBuzz we strongly believe in the guiding principle - “if you’ve got nothing to tell me, tell me you’ve got nothing to tell me, don’t tell me nothing!”



 6. Need for positive self-image

Whilst financial remuneration is important, people at work seek further reward. They strive to maintain a positive self-image and want to be appreciated for their efforts and praised when they have done a good job. Great leaders realise the power of positive feedback - gestures of recognition pay directly into the emotional bank account raising our sense of security and boosting confidence, optimism and self-belief.

During lockdown give some positive feedback and appreciation to people in your team, do this privately and publicly. Take this time to get to know them better and try to discover their hidden talents, it will make them feel good. Recognise their abilities, skills and experiences and let them know how much you value their contribution to the team. Put them forward for any honours or awards. Maybe do something different and send them a lockdown hamper to say thanks!



7. Need for growth

Applying new skills and techniques raises our contribution and value within the group, and therefore our personal standing and sense of security. For millennials in the workplace, learning and development has taken on greater significance - if you’re not moving forwards you’re going backwards. New recruits now seek out employers willing to invest in their improvement. Lockdown does not mean that development stops - great leaders will see this as the time to step it up – if you can’t perform then learn.

Firstly, make sure you are up to date with your organisation’s current policies - what is the learning currently on offer, familiarise yourself with current models and processes, e.g. development frameworks and plans. Use this opportunity for giving feedback and providing development coaching. Encourage and support people with both their organisational and especially their personal learning challenges. Recommend useful webinars and podcasts, videos and talks, and ask your team to review them. Grow your team by holding meetings with a focus on team development – what can we do to become a more effective team?

"The way to develop your social circuitry is to undertake the hard work of changing your behaviour" - Daniel Goleman

You’ve spent time, money and effort building and developing a great team - don’t let lockdown see it go to waste. This article has offered some suggestions based on real science and human behaviour to help you satisfy the critical psychological and emotional needs of your team during Covid-19. I hope it will provoke and inspire a few ideas and small changes and enable you to spot potential problems early. Finally, don’t be afraid to try something different or new - these are strange times, people are knocked off balance, and weird is the new normal – good luck, stay safe!




For more information about managing your remote workers, have a look at our new Managing Remote Workers Report for advice on how to manage from a distance!