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Many organizations are still getting used to a work-from-home or hybrid workforce. Even if they use a variety of virtual technologies, that isn’t necessarily enough to create a level playing field between employees. Part of the reason some people may receive preferential treatment in today’s (often hybrid) environment is due to a subconscious tendency known as proximity bias.

What is Proximity Bias?

In short, proximity bias has to do with giving preference to those who are close by. The BBC describes proximity bias as “an unconscious – and unwise – tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity.” Due to proximity, we might distribute projects or tasks unfairly, let certain people “have the floor” more often during meetings, or pay closer attention to those who are nearby…all without even realizing we’re doing it.

Humans are constantly seeking 1) shortcuts and 2) connections. Because of these tendencies, proximity bias is the most natural thing in the world. It’s easier to assign tasks or communicate with those who are in the office next door. And it’s easier to form connections when you’re in the same room as someone, rather than someone in the virtual space. Frankly, that is unfair to those who are unable to regularly be in the office for whatever reason (irregular childcare schedules, caretaking for an ailing loved one, an outlandishly long commute, etc.)

How do we change these impulsive tendencies?

How Do We Overcome Proximity Bias?

The first step is to build awareness.

Once you understand proximity bias and its implications, you can begin working to overcome it. Start paying attention to the interactions you have with those close by, as opposed to the interactions you have with virtual workers. Start questioning your preferences—who is assigned certain projects, who has the most air time during meetings, etc. Tuning in is the first step to making mindful, meaningful changes.

Secondly, normalize logging in.

Even if part of your team is sharing a conference room during a meeting, encourage everyone to log in to their own laptop. That way, you’re conducting one meeting (in the virtual space), instead of two meetings, and in-person participants won’t be able to strike up side conversations or give body language signals that the virtual attendees might not see. Logging in when you’re in the same room might seem awkward at first, but people will adapt (especially if you explain why it’s important to do so).

Third, make sure everyone has equal access to resources.

Files should be shared in a virtual space; action plans and notes should be digitized. To further combat proximity bias, it’s a good idea to promote virtual discussions/forums, rather than rely on casual hallway interactions. Besides, if you use online forums, you’ll have a digital record of ideas and discussions that could be useful going forward.

Fourth, balance in-person meetings/events with virtual ones.

When the office culture revolves around in-person lunches, activities, and get togethers, those who are working remotely are naturally left out. When that happens, their connection with the office and their co-workers (and, often, and their sense of loyalty to the company) diminishes. Instead, make a conscious effort to host online events just as often (or more often!) as in-person ones.

Proximity bias is a very real phenomenon, but it is possible to combat it. Even though it’s difficult to entirely erase this subconscious bias, we can all take mindful steps to minimize it.

MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS® DISCOVERY (AND DEEPER DISCOVERY) LICENSED PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF UXL. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. 

HER NEW EBOOK IS CALLED A QUICK GUIDE TO COURAGE
CHECK OUT MARGARET’S ONLINE LEADERSHIP COURSE.

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In this blog, I have often talked about “love leadership” and being a compassionate, caring leader. That is vitally important for fostering open communication, developing an atmosphere of trust, and keeping your team energized and engaged.

Leading with love, however, does NOT mean being a pushover. It is crucial to not only show empathy and genuine concern for your staff, but to also create a culture of accountability. How can you balance the two? Try these five steps:

1. Communicate with Clarity

Aim for clarity, every step of the way. Set clear goals and expectations, and be transparent about the consequences if those expectations are not met. If a deadline is not met, for instance, it should come as no surprise that the person or team who missed the deadline will need to work overtime to make up for their tardiness. Or, if someone is consistently turning in sub-par work, that person should know what is coming (a probationary period, perhaps, or working with a mentor to improve their work).

Communicating with clarity also means encouraging your team to ask questions. Be transparent, create an open line of communication, and be open to modifying expectations if new information comes to light.

2. Be Consistent

A work team can always spot favoritism. Make sure you’re holding everyone accountable, not just certain team members. There will be times, of course, when some people need a little extra time or assistance to complete a project, but that doesn’t mean they are exempt from expectations. Be fair, but also be consistent.

3. Know When to Make Exceptions

Even if you’ve made your expectations clear, there are times when exceptions are necessary. Use your judgment on this and take all aspects of a situation into account before enacting consequences. If someone shows up late to a meeting because their car broke down while driving their kids to daycare, give that person a little understanding and grace. If, however, that same person is consistently late to meetings, it’s a good idea to sit down with them, discover the root of the problem, and strategize ways to help them become more punctual (perhaps their children’s daycare doesn’t open until later, in which case the solution might be to push back morning meetings by half an hour).

4. Make Sure the Consequences Match the Shortcoming

There is a big difference between turning in an assignment a few hours late and yelling at a customer. If the offense is minor, usually it’s possible to work past it. Sit down with the person, talk about what happened, and come up with a solution, going forward. If the offense is major, you may have to take extreme measures. It is never pleasant to do this, but some actions are inexcusable and go beyond a simple strategy session.

5. Know When to Make Hard Decisions

If someone repeatedly falls short of expectations or makes serious errors that affect the entire team or company, they should know that their job is potentially at stake. If you have tried several different approaches to work through their troubles, they should understand when they’re on their “final chance.” Know when to draw that line in the sand. You can be a compassionate, empathetic leader, and still dole out consequences when necessary. As long as expectations have been clear every step of the way, a probationary period or a dismissal should not come as a surprise.

MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS® DISCOVERY (AND DEEPER DISCOVERY) LICENSED PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF UXL. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. 
CHECK OUT MARGARET’S ONLINE LEADERSHIP COURSE.

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Every day, we are seeing signs of hope. More and more people are getting vaccinated, businesses are reopening their doors, people are returning to work. Gradually, we’re working toward a time when we can move past the era of COVID-19 and its stranglehold on our lives. But will life ever truly be the same? Will workplaces operate as they once did?

All signs point to NO.

Even though we might return to the same buildings where we worked pre-pandemic and focus on the same duties with the same people, things may look and feel different. Procedures and protocols might change, the layout of the workspace might be tweaked (desks further apart, conference rooms rearranged), and the general feel of the office might seem different.

Beyond these changes, it is clear that workers are ready to embrace a new normal. Many have discovered that they enjoy working from home (or, at least, want to have the option to work from home on occasion). Others have found that they prefer virtual meetings as opposed to taking long, cross-country trips to meet with clients or co-workers in other states.  Some, however, are eager to return to the way things were and are looking forward to working alongside others.

With so many differing opinions and perspectives, what’s a workplace to do?

Try following these 6 tips to ease your workers back into a “new normal.”

1. Embrace a Hybrid Work Model

This past year has proven that work can be accomplished at home, as well as in the office. It can be achieved at 5 a.m. …or 9 p.m. So, why not continue to offer flexibility and allow employees to work at home if they’d like, or come into the office if they’d like? If you emphasize results rather than a rigid schedule, you’re only helping those who prefer working at home, prefer a flexible schedule (maybe they have to bring their kids to school or daycare, or maybe they simply want to exercise in the middle of the day), or those who want to avoid a long, stressful commute.

2. Implement a Rotational Work Model

To help people feel safe in the office in these early reentry days, it’s a good idea to keep up some kind of social distancing. To do that, you might put your team members on a rotational schedule, where certain people can work in the office on certain days of the week. That helps keep everyone distanced, while slowing edging back into the workplace.

3. Take a Phased Approach

You don’t have to do everything at once! Take your time with reentry and plan to bring everyone back in phases. Maybe that means introducing a rotational model at first (see point #2,) or encouraging work from home for part of the week, or easing up on mask restrictions once your team is vaccinated. Do what is right for your office and DON’T FORGET to include your employees in your planning. Gather their thoughts and opinions; make sure they feel safe and included.

4. Restructure Your Offices

To help protect your workers and give them a little more peace of mind, it’s a good idea to restructure your offices somewhat. If you can, try spacing workstations so they are six feet apart and well-ventilated. You may also want to invest in a quality air purification system for the office. Beyond that, be mindful of conference rooms, break areas, and other gathering spaces. You may want to encourage virtual conferencing in the short-term, to help discourage clusters of people.

5. Create a Sanitary Workplace

Aside from rearranging your workspace and making big, sweeping changes, it’s a good idea to continue focusing on sanitation. Provide antibacterial hand sanitizer stations across the office and encourage employees to clean desks and chairs with wipes before taking a seat. Make sure everyone has access to sanitation supplies and normalize caution!

6. Encourage Good Hygiene and Self Care

Post handwashing signs in the bathrooms, provide each employee with a supply of hand sanitizer and wipes, and discourage handshakes and touching. It’s also a good idea on taking a FIRM stance against employees coming into the office if they’re feeling under the weather. Let them know that they have your full support if they would rather stay home.

As we tiptoe back into the workplace, these first few months will inevitably be challenging. Take your time, develop a plan, and be sure to involve everyone in the strategy phase. Convey to your team members that you are on their side and want to do everything in your power to keep them safe, happy, and productive. Going forward, we’ll all have to be flexible and willing to learn or adapt. We’re all in this together.


MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS® DISCOVERY (AND DEEPER DISCOVERY) LICENSED PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF UXL. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. 
CHECK OUT MARGARET’S ONLINE LEADERSHIP COURSE.

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