• Article

    Collaboration

Togetherness keeps the reptilian brain calm

There are some factors that mark out groups that have the greatest success with virtual meetings: trust, reliability, belonging and emotional closeness.

Trust is fundamental when we are working together towards a shared goal in virtual meetings. Good relations and good interaction within the group gradually build up trust. This gives us the courage to open up, discuss and put forward criticism in a safe environment.

Research shows that, in virtual meetings, trust in an individual is determined by whether they answer colleagues’ questions promptly and complete their tasks within the deadline – properly and to a good standard. In other words you can rely on each other to do what you are supposed to do.1

Trust is built up more quickly when you meet in person. You can chat during a coffee break, for example, and get to know each other. You gain trust in the other person to a greater extent, compared with virtual meetings, where the focus is on people’s performance. It is also more difficult to identify with a virtual group – to feel belonging. It is easy to feel like a satellite spinning through space in isolation, since the opportunities to get to know the others are limited.  This naturally places particular requirements on the person leading the group.2

From anonymity to emotional closeness 

The most successful virtual teams are those that manage to create both trust and the emotional closeness necessary in order to provide the best mutual support.  A study shows that what appears to make the greatest difference in virtual teams is:

  1. The ability to quickly develop and encourage trust and emotional closeness in the virtual environment. The team leader has an important role to play in this context.
  2. Setting aside enough time to create a “contract” covering the way the group will work together. Each group must create its own principles concerning the way they will work – a code of conduct that sets out a bare minimum of rules that the members can agree on.
  3. Creating space for spontaneity and informal conversations that increase the trust and emotional closeness between members. This helps them to relax and feel that they can trust each other.  There is a great need to create something that replaces encounters at the coffee machine in the office.3

It all boils down to communication, communication, communication – on the brain’s terms.

Reptilian brain and neocortex

When we feel insecure and unappreciated, we begin to think negative thoughts. These may be expressed with a frown or a biting reply. All this activates the reptilian brain, which deals in quick decisions, in contrast to the more considered neocortex. 

The reptilian brain bases its impulses on black or white assessments. Dangerous or harmless. Good or bad. It is designed to respond to fight-or-flight situations, where there is little time to think, and it takes command whenever you react in a way you are likely to regret later. Or when you bottle things up and sink too much energy and resources into your well of anger – leaving less available to tackle the tasks you and the group are there to resolve.

Feeling secure is a fundamental need. We want things to be the way they usually are – safe and familiar. Our reward system gets activated and that makes us feel good. We are able to access the neocortex – the thinking brain – which gives us a broader and deeper perspective so that we are able to process the information the best way a person can. We are able to draw lessons from previous experiences and see future consequences. We are more creative and treat others in a positive way. 

When everyone feels secure, the group has access to the best possible conditions for collaborating and achieving its goal.

A few tips on keeping the reptilian brain calm:

  • Written instructions for everyone on the rules you have agreed on.
  • Email a guide on how to create good virtual meetings. This creates a sense of security. 
  • A clear agenda, so everyone can prepare
  • Allow enough time for everyone to prepare. If you fail to do this, the quality of the meeting will drop and there will be a greater risk of activating the reptilian brain in one or more of the group members.
1 Bradley Kirkman et al. (2002), Five challenges to virtual team success: Lessons from Sabre Inc., The Academy of Management Executive, August, vol.16, no 3, pp 67-69 2 Marlene C. Fiol and Edward J. Connor (2005), Identification in face-to-face hybrid, and pure virtual teams; Untangling the contradictions, Organization Science, no 1, pp 19-31.
3 Ghislaine Caulat, (2006) Virtual leadership, article, http://www.nomadicibp.com/uploads/files/Virtual%20leadership%20-%20Caulat.pdf. Her book has the same title.

The sections in the text about the brain that don’t have any footnotes are from the book “Din hjärna från 2008 är effektivare än den du har idag. Så kan du återställa den” (Your brain from 2008 is more effective than the one you have today. How to reset it) by Tomas Dalström.

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