Bonding or Bridging?


Didier Marlier

December 01, 2022

From Disruption to Engagement

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Almost nine years ago, I wrote an article titled: “Bonding vs bridging: One of the biggest cause of value destruction”. I recommend you read it (again?) as a complement to this one.

Bonding is an exclusion based reflex or strategy, inciting divisiveness and polarization against a common “enemy” (usually a weak placebo for the lack of a superior, shared and collective purpose). We have seen this lethal mechanism at work with the nazi or fascist movements for example. We also see it in action with the hooligans violently confronting the “other team” more than supporting their own (again due to the weak interest those people have in truly appreciating football and supporting their colours). Bonding therefore tends to be some sort of an identity building and a protective “animal” instinct, rapidly drifting into more or less explicit conflict, blockages, rumours and most of the organization’s energy being inward focused and fear loaded.

Bridging on the contrary, is a much more difficult but value creative strategy. It is inclusion based, calling for understanding, respect and defining a shared agenda and Deep Intent. The behaviours one sees in Bridging Cultures are very close from IMD’s ex-Professor Chris Parker’s list of eight Value-Building Behaviours:

  • Listen to understand (active listening)
  • Explore and be open minded (ask open questions)
  • Summarize what you heard the other say (both at the intellectual and emotional level)
  • Support (at least validate authentically a part of what they say)
  • Challenge (what you have problems with or disagree with)
  • Conclude (clarify/decide)
  • Ask for time-out (when the discussion becomes heated and people don’t seek to understand but try to convince)
  • Offer feedback

A bridging attitude is not about conflict avoidance, nor “Peace & Love”. It is about instilling an adult-adult relationship, transforming people from internal opponents into collective problem-solvers, it is about changing a self-interest driven and divisive culture into a generous and creative one.

An old educational video (“From No to Yes”) described this process of transforming potentially destructive conversations into constructive ones:

  • Step 1 Listen Actively: Show them that you understand that they feel strongly (recognition of the emotion being displayed), what they feel strongly about (their rationale), why they feel strongly about it (the why)
  • Step 2 Win yourself a hearing: Explain your own feelings, refer back to their points (start to bridge), make your points firmly but stay friendly (“Be hard on the problem, soft on the people” as HBS “Getting to Yes” project quotes)
  • Step 3 Work to a joint solution: Seek their ideas, build on their ideas (bridging, support aspect), offer your ideas (challenge) and construct the solution from everyone’s needs.

Bridging cultures don’t emerge by luck nor accident. It is an explicit choice made by the leaders and a constant effort, since, being a negative behaviour, Bonding is always our instinctive fallback behaviour whereas Bridging requires a conscious and permanent effort.

In a recent conversation about the future of our business, one of my senior partners, wrote: “I see a role for us to call out those who are unconsciously perpetuating division and prejudice. Our behaviour should not be to disagree with their position, but to invite them to reflect on the environment they are helping to create.”

Another of our senior members has, since four years, developed a program on “Critical Thinking”, which is the opposite of preparing a critical rebuff to what my opponent says but rather “critically check how I am listening to that person”…

Modest first steps in our collective mission to bring “Bridging” to the top of the corporate and, of course, political agenda? This is where we, as Enablers, intend to start from!

As a symbol, here is the prayer that Senate Chaplain, Barry Black, addressed to his colleagues Representatives and Senators, after the interruption due to rioters violently invading the Capitol on January 6th 2021… Another modest step… but so inspiring

Let us, as leaders of the XXIst century, reinvent the Economy and turn it into a generous, sustainable and fair one! Enjoy your 2021 Journey!


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