The Bias for Proximity

A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”
John C. Maxwell

Here we are in a hybrid leadership world (with “hybrid” defined by Webster as “something of mixed origin or composition”).  For most of us, the term now means we are leading teams and organizations where some of us are physically present for work, and others are not – instead, they have a virtual connection to the office.  Pandemic notwithstanding, for thousands of companies worldwide, this hybrid culture is likely here to stay…

In my upcoming blogs, I plan to examine the effects of this revolution in our work environment, and how we must become much more deliberate in applying many of our leadership skills.

First, we must address the powerful tendency in the hybrid environment to develop a proximity bias. An in-office/remote hybrid environment can lead to a 'proximity bias.' As Harvard professor Linda Hill describes it, this bias leads to the incorrect assumption that “the people in the office are more productive than those who are not.”[1]  This perception can be toxic for the workplace culture, creating a destructive “us versus them” mindset.

Communication breaks down where this bias is allowed to take hold, and morale suffers as a result.  Those not in the physical office feel excluded, and those in the physical office believe they are working harder than those at home.  No one gets support.  Yet as Rebecca Knight writes, “Your primary role as a manager, pandemic or no, is to support your employees.  And boy do they ever need it.”[2]

This problem demands a deliberate, sustained leadership focus.  Ask yourself: What’s fairest for the whole team?

One proven technique is to have all meetings in the same format, with no exceptions.  Resist the tendency to gather up the in-office team without the virtual team because it’s easier or quicker.  Inclusivity has a new dimension in this new culture. Resist the tendency to gather up the in-office team without the virtual team because it’s easier or quicker. Inclusivity is the way to fight 'proximity bias.'

Next, decide who decides.  Publish a “decision tree” – it will define which decisions you make, and which ones others make.  Use integrated virtual and physical process teams to come up with collaborative solutions.  Share the leadership roles across the domains.

Set the example by working in the office and from home.  I recommend a week at a time.  Your leaders will know you’re truly focused on keeping the team intact – and defeating the proximity bias.  Enjoy the journey!

[1] As quoted by Rebecca Knight in her excellent article, “How to Manage a Hybrid Team” in the Harvard Business Review October 7, 2020, p.4.

[2] Ibid., p.2

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