The conversations at WEF in Davos last week were varied and wide-ranging, but all centred on a key question – How can we work towards a common, mutually beneficial future in an extremely diverse world fragmented by difference?
Multinational companies are well acquainted with this problem, as they confront it daily through the communication conundrums between their regional offices.
Although every organisation strives for strong teamwork and optimal performance from all of its regional offices, achieving this is much more difficult. Teams dispersed across regions do not share traditional face time in a space called “office”, where rituals, artefacts, and observation set the parameters for inclusion, acceptance and belonging. Tsedal Neeley, an associate professor from Harvard Business School who has studied team dynamics for more than 15 years, has noted one basic difference between global teams that work and those that don’t – the degree of emotional connection among team members. She calls this social distance. Co-workers who are geographically separated cannot easily connect and align, often lack trust and do not feel close and congenial.
So how do you get employees from different countries to all sing from the same hymn sheet? And how do you create an organisational culture that gets everyone’s buy-in, especially when you are dealing with dozens of different nationalities, languages, and belief systems? Neuroscience, which focuses on how our brains work, may well have the answer.
So much technology, so little connection
The ‘fractured world’ Davos focused on last week does not just apply to the divisions created by groups, but within the individual too. From a neuroscience perspective, each person needs to feel a sense of belonging, both personally and professionally. Social needs are actually a key aspect of human survival, and are as important as our physiological needs and need for safety.
This is especially true as we head towards the third decade of the new millennium, where the only constant is change. As the pace of life accelerates, and the noise around us reaches a fever pitch, we become more and more uncertain of where we fit in society, and our need for belonging increases.
In a multinational company, this translates to employees feeling unsure of their place in the organisation they work for. They feel threatened by the constant change, and so are even more inclined to reject what they are unfamiliar with, and congregate around what they know. Research shows us that our brain scans the environment for potential threats five times a second. There is safety in numbers, which is why we are social beings who thrive as part of teams. We are wired to avoid what we intuitively experience as foreign and uncertain – in this case our company offices in different countries – and to intuitively select what we know, i.e. our own office.
In addition, neuroscience tells us that feelings of isolation and exclusion can actually trigger the same part of our brain that registers physical pain. This social pain is just as intense as physical pain and the brain cannot distinguish between them. People will, of course, do everything they can to avoid this pain, and so, as employees, they can often disengage and no longer feel motivated.
Management may try to remedy this lack of human connection between regions by introducing better technology to their offices around the globe – but enabling clear communication and meaningful connections between different regions entails much more than simply providing superior video conferencing facilities.
Creating a common organisational culture
Neuroscience tells us that, as well as needing to feel a sense of belonging in their company, employees also want to be part of something bigger that can give their lives purpose. This is a difficult ask for a diverse, globally scattered organisation.
Considering these realities, can multiregional offices succeed at all? The good news is that, yes, they can. Because the brain is able to grow infinitely and develop new habits – what we call neuroplasticity – interregional offices can indeed work well together. To create a unified culture, management needs to enable employees to move away from feeling isolated and distinctly separate and move towards a feeling of emotional belonging and connection with the individuals they work with across the globe. There are, however, three critical success factors to maximise cooperation and connection:
• Respecting people’s real needs, with consideration for their current context;
• Understanding how people learn and grow;
• Practising simplicity, clarity and transparency to foster trust, relatedness and growth.
Three ways to help bridge the distance in multinational organisations
1. Build capacity to interpret disruption and incorporate change into existing frameworks. Achieve this by creating a shared vision using simple, clear, consistent messaging. Keep the vision alive by living it in how people talk, write, act, respect and are included. The idea behind this is not new, but hard science has actually proven that this is non-negotiable for leaders who want to work with committed high performers. Limit the number of key messages to four, and consistently link to existing themes.
2. Motivate, energise and inspire people through an inclusive sense of purpose they relate to, consider ethical and meaningful, and want to be part of. Your organisation needs to stand for something beyond just making money, and to be seen to practise purpose.
3. Accept that all humans are biased. Then mitigate bias to take better decisions, manage complexity and build a change-accepting cultures. When change is aligned to purpose and core values, the threat is decreased. You can begin to mitigate bias by making it public and naming it. Then involve others – diversity combined with collaboration allows for multiple perspectives. Finally, build new habits by applying specific practices regularly. Neuroplasticity is not about changing habits, but about building new habits that encourage relevant behaviours.
Rob Jardine is the Head of Research and Solutions at the NeuroLeadership Institute South Africa and Mary-Joe Emde is the Neuroscience Subject Matter Expert and Global Facilitator for the NeuroLeadership Institute, New York.