This article was originally published on 12 October 2020 on Forbes.com
This year, businesses have been forced to adapt to working conditions previously unseen. New ways of working made up on the fly, little oversight of people and processes, people and leaders working harder than ever to keep up with unpredictable conditions, and venturing into a brave new world of work has defined 2020. This environment is similar to the experience of frontier settlers in the American West.
Research published last month in Nature Human Behaviour by a team out of Cambridge detected remnants of a pioneering personality in U.S. populations whose ancestors lived in the harsh and remote conditions of the American frontier. These remote environments attracted non-conformists who longed for freedom; those who were willing to take risks; and those who closely guarded their territory. As our working environments have quickly changed to resemble something like the frontier — isolated and difficult — what can we learn from "frontier mentality" and subsequently control for in our employee engagement strategy? Turns out, plenty.
Here are three ways our rugged new environment could be impacting behavior — and how to harness the best and mitigate the worst.
Pioneers were less likely to survive if they didn't possess an element of distrust of strangers, as strangers could be a large threat in frontier days. Distrust in organizations, however, can also be disastrous. After all, employees in high-trust environments have long been known to be more productive, have more energy, and collaborate better than those in low-trust environments. Therefore, when trust is not present in a culture, it can create a performance problem.
On the topic of threats, each interaction with a stranger (or a friend for that matter) can bring the threat of contracting Covid-19. When we feel threatened, a natural reaction is to become more insular. A consequence of being more insular, however, is that it can lead to more in-group bias. This means that people tend to prioritize the needs of those like them and become more biased to anyone different.
Debiasing training is great for teams at any level of the organization to bring awareness to this innately human way of thinking. Its benefits could extend into other parts of the business, such as hiring practices and how to control for common hiring biases. This type of training usually falls in the remit of a diversity and inclusion team, with support from your learning and development team. Examining issues of organizational trust would fall into the realm of a culture audit or culture change review.
An increased willingness to take risks was a feature trait of the pioneering personality. Venturing into the unknown could have great benefits — or terrible consequences. Risk with regards to employee engagement is manifesting itself in organizations in two ways. First, in an operational sense. For example, some companies are moving to remote first ways of working, with the long-term effects on culture, productivity, and collaboration largely unknown, with the rare exception here and there of companies who have always been remote first, such as GitLab. GitLab's Remote Manifesto is a good read for companies looking to transform more of their workforce to remote on a more permanent basis.
Second, there could be an increase in risky health behaviors on an employee-by-employee basis. There are many negative emotions in play at the moment, such as sadness, frustration, and uncertainty. One interesting thing that happens when we feel sad is that we are more likely to engage in risk-seeking behavior in an attempt to distract ourselves from feeling sad.
Companies should incorporate risk assessments to the long-term effects of short-term decisions (such as moving to an all-remote workforce) as well as employee wellbeing into their engagement strategies.
While a gun-slinging duel to resolve differences is part of the Wild West that is thankfully not present in today's work culture, employers must provide the tools and training to help their people resolve disagreements when one can no longer walk over to someone's desk to talk over a misunderstanding. As previously written in Forbes, workplace misunderstandings are more likely to occur in remote working for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of visual cues, the fundamental attribution error, and perception of poorer work behavior in remote colleagues. Training should hit the sweet spot of reminding people of our tendency to assume the worst so they are more aware of that way of that line of thinking as it happens, combined with timely coaching about how best to keep transparent lines of communication open.
The authors of the research on the remnants of the pioneering personality begin their article with a quote from historian Frederick Jackson Turner describing the U.S. frontier — one that rings true to what employees in all lines of work have faced in 2020. They share how he described how the "coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness" forged the character of those who made the American West their home. Equally, this shift in our working environment can bring out the best in employees and companies.