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Managing the risks of hybrid working

The benefits of effective teams and groups have long been recognised within organisations. Highly functional and cohesive teams can enhance productivity, improve decision-making, and provide significant personal and group satisfaction. In addition, successful or winning teams have some notable characteristics that distinguish them from average or poor-performing groups. These characteristics play an important role in minimising and managing the risks of hybrid working.

  • Leadership that ensures team members undertake specific roles that complement each other.
  • Team members who establish strong bonds, synergy and cohesiveness.
  • A sense of belonging to ensure decisions are made with the full support of all team members.

However, whilst all organisations strive to achieve this type of productive teamwork, these characteristics could also lead to dysfunctional teams.

We should not assume that a dysfunctional team cannot make decisions or is falling apart. Consider Groupthink, Risky Shift and the Abilene paradox. These phenomena explain how seemingly functional groups make poor decisions that result in risky, unethical and possibly illegal organisational outcomes.

Inspirational Leadership

Several critical emotional intelligence capabilities work against these problems, including inspirational leadership, empathy, and conflict management. However, these rely on a leader’s ability to interact with team members. Being able to pick up on interpersonal issues and body language and read the atmosphere in the room is critical for managing risk.

As organisations embrace hybrid work, it is important to recognise the increased risks that can result from these remote contexts. And a worrying aspect is the increased potential for unethical outcomes due to these hybrid environments.

Risks of Hybrid Working

The potential ethical risks are evident in groups led by unethical leaders or where a team culture allows bypassing of rules, policies, and procedures. An excellent example is the practices of many of our financial institutions, despite internal codes of conduct and industry-based codes to supposedly promote ethical practice, as highlighted by the Banking Royal Commission.

American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg outlined an approach that helps us understand how people make or discern ethical dimensions to decision making. He coined this approach the cognitive moral development model. Kohlberg noted that the majority of people operate at what he called the conventional level. That is, where being accepted by a group or the ability to associate with a particular group – a sense of belonging – is paramount. At this level, being accepted by the team leader, following the directions and group norms, and being seen as a team player is critical.

Unlike the real world, where informed leaders can pick up on subtle clues such as vocal intonation, body language, and the atmosphere within the room, none of this is easily possible in the hybrid environment.

With more and more people highlighting increased stress levels from isolation and remote working, the ability for people to disengage by muting their microphone and camera increases the opportunity for a few individuals to dominate groups which can lead to unethical and risky decisions.

We also know from Kohlberg’s work that an individual’s ability to understand the ethical complexity of decisions is limited by their own perception of what is right and wrong. He noted that most adults operate at the conventional level of cognitive moral development. Being part of the team or a group and being accepted as a team member is the critical factor that will affect their decision-making. In fact, following group norms and the direction of team leaders are often the best way to be accepted and belong. But what happens if the team leader is unethical? Or if the virtual environment inhibits the group’s normal development, resulting in compromised norms that expose the organisation to risk?

Managing the risks

How do we acquire the critical knowledge about ethics that Kohlberg says is required to improve our cognitive moral decision-making capability?

We cannot view ethics like a vaccine. One or two doses of ethics through a brief discussion in a team meeting or a pronouncement from the CEO will not create an ethical culture. Instead, people must acquire knowledge about ethics and morality, the different approaches to decision-making, and how ethical practice has become a significant differentiator.

Increasing the opportunity to talk and reflect on ethics and explore the organisational implications of doing good is critical. By building in questions of ethics, highlighting corporate values and how they should inform decision-making in team meeting agendas, we start the journey to developing ethical cultures.

Ethics is not a question of individual opinion. Instead, it is an informed and considered approach to the challenges we face in our personal and professional lives, through:

  • Equipping people with the relevant conceptual and behavioural capabilities to make ethical decisions.
  • Nurturing healthy team habits and behaviours to enhance effective teamwork.
  • Managing and minimising risks in order to build the organisation’s reputation and credibility.
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