Bonding vs bridging: One of the biggest cause of value destruction

by Didier Marlier on Saturday March 17th, 2012

“Bonding vs Bridging”: the words come from the work of Lynda Gratton, a Professor of Management at London Business School. Bonding seems to be the most natural and instinctive reflex in humans, when confronted to uncertainty or time of harshness. History is full of examples of leaders using this human reaction to reinforce their position by focusing the energy of their nation against a scapegoat. Sociologists explain that the hooligans phenomenon is a well known defense mechanism known under the name of “Identification”: “I need to belong to a horde or  clan in order to appear stronger”. Bonding is the simpler tool to use in case of trouble: it costs little energy to the leader who just needs to surf on the wave of panic, rejection or distrust which created the feeling of insecurity. This is why, so many political parties which look unreasonable, extremist, xenophobic or ultra-nationalists to those of us attached to the concept of democracy, still manage to reach relatively high scores in elections: It is far easier to trigger the “Bonding reflex” than construct the “Bridging”.

So what is “Bridging”? It is far less instinctive and somewhat counter-intuitive than “Bonding”. Bridging is accepting to move out of my comfort zone and connect with the other(s). It is about empathy, refusing to hide in my shell and attending the needs, concerns and questions of the others. Bridging, like the famous Positive vs. Negative behaviours of Losada (see post http://enablersnetwork.com/2009/%E2%80%9Cwhy-it-takes-a-focused-effort-to-create-a-value-building-environment%E2%80%9D/), takes far more thinking, effort and energy than bonding.

So why is it so critical for us, business leaders?: Some years ago, a colleague of ours had been called by a the Board of a client. They had invested a fortune over a wiz kids team in Research & Development. The group was located far from headquarters as per their request: they wanted to stay in their country of origin. But, little by little, distance, followed by doubts and finally mistrust, creep in. The angels had clearly fallen from Grace and the suspicion was that they were using the funds that the company was investing on them and their work, to prepare their own start-up… Our colleague was the last call. His job was to go , meet those people and subsequently advise the Board on what to do with that team. To his surprise, he discovered that behind the “Bella Figura” window dressing, the team was in shamble: they felt the heat of the expectations’ pressure and feared they would not be able to deliver. Cracks had appeared between themselves and some were not in speaking terms with each other… They hid their suffering behind a bonding reflex: “Let us not talk about our doubts and internal struggle to HQ!”… And little by little, from their side as well, mistrust grew against their leaders: “They just hired us to weaken the companies we worked for. They never had the intention to do something great… We do not have the resources anyway”…

Sometimes, as we see from this example, Bonding vs. Bridging is played by our subordinates and it can be damageable. But far worse are the cases when we, as senior leaders, fall into the same trap. After almost 20 years in this job, I found three common cases:

  • Isolation: In times of uncertainty (merger, reorganization, strategy shift), leaders tend to isolate themselves from their people… They have many good reasons for that: the new organization is not yet totally defined, they haven’t decided yet who will be nominated for the key jobs, think that they can’t go and share their doubts and hesitations with their people, as it could make things worse… The fact is that, as we say in French. “The Nature abhors a vacuum”… So people will fill the communication and engagement gap… Very quickly, negative fantasies and rumours will emerge. The energy of people will drift from fighting into the market towards guessing my next step, colluding with people in power to try and get advanced information about the new organization or strategy… How many mergers & acquisitions, how many new strategic intents have paid a heavy price for that bonding reflex of the leaders in charge when, in fact, these should have left their unintended ivory tower and gone bridging, reassuring, re-energizing their people, admitting their “temporary incompetence”…
  • Distance & perceived elitism: With the tidal wave of “generation Y”, many leaders feel a bit tight and constrained: these “kids” are extremely well educated and technically/scientifically prepared. They don’t play the game the way we do and don’t seem to value the same references as ours… Consequently, we see senior leadership teams isolating themselves in order to try and preserve the illusion of being still in control… You may think: “Not in our organization!”… I would challenge you: When was the last time your top leadership team dedicated time and resources to its own education and professional update? How open is your team vis a vis younger leaders? How welcoming and curious is it towards those who are challenging orthodoxies and thinking in different ways? Are you in a “Seniority is Superiority” mode or is your team really connecting, listening to learn and understand, humble and lowering the guard in front of its own people? In other terms, is your team bonding/Closing on itself or is it reaching out/bridging towards its people?
  • Politics & value destruction: When it is the leadership team (and not a remote R&D team on their island) who is undermined by internal tensions, rivalry and politics the impact is far worse on the whole organization. I am always surprised by the candor with which leaders in such cases still believe that “nobody outside this room knows about our minor disagreements”… And admitting the misalignment is a great step forward: most dysfunctional leadership teams simply deny being in that state… The problem is that everybody in the organization knows… Bonding is an unhealthy defense mechanism. People affected by it have lower energy; they are in a reactive or egocentric mode instead of being purposeful. They think that they left their dissent behind closed doors but can’t help letting out criticism, cynicism or disillusion. People pick it up and multiply those micro-behaviours by ten at their level (“Since the role models are entitled to mistrust and have a go at each other, why shouldn’t we?”)

I hope this makes it clearer why the distinction between bonding and bridging is critical and how many great leaders and their team fall in that trap, believing that nobody saw it… Bonding at Board, Exco, Comex, Codir, Diretoria level is one of the biggest cause of shareholder value destruction…

On my way to São-Paulo/Rio for three fascinating weeks of work, and a fourth one with my wife and daughter in our Bahia paradise. Have a good week all

Didier

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