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Leadership in Crisis – Re-establish Cohesion


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to teach them how to help businesses innovate. 

I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis. Of course this is more relevant than ever today. 

What I’m talking about is how to deal with organizations in crisis and how to create directive leadership. We talked about what’s necessary for directive leadership, how to re-establish boundaries, how to preserve a group. In this video blog, I want to talk about how to create cohesion: How do you create the need within the members in the leadership to preserve the existence of the group? 

Let’s take the analogy of a marriage. When one of the partners has an affair, the boundaries of a marriage are breached. If the boundaries are breached, it’s difficult to hold on, but if they still have the idea of the marriage and they still have the feeling of belonging, they still can remember what it was like to be in love and connected and in the boundaries of the marriage then there’s hope. 

It is very similar within teams. Within teams, we can still recreate cohesion even if the structure and the relationship isn’t there. If the idea of being a group was there, we can re-establish it and there’s still hope. 


How do you re-establish the feeling of cohesion and group? 


Actually during crisis, it’s much easier to re-establish cohesion than under normal circumstances. During crisis, people usually feel utterly human and vulnerable and they realize that it’s not possible to survive alone. So it’s much easier to re-establish cohesion if you do it right.

If you create directive leadership, a crisis team, and re-establish boundaries then creating cohesion in crisis is not a difficult thing to do (usually). We have several ways to do it. These strategies of creating cohesion come from the fifties. In the postwar period, society had fallen apart and social researchers and psychologists were wondering how to build up society again. They wanted to create a cohesive society. 

Lewin first referred to cohesiveness, relating it to the degree of group interdependence and the forces of attraction that held the group together. Festinger et al (1950) then formalized a theory of group cohesiveness, defining it as the total field of forces that act on members to remain in the group.

We know there are at least three major ways to create cohesiveness: 


1. Interpersonal attractiveness and shared goals: 


Festinger’s way of creating cohesiveness is by creating a very attractive in-group and shared goals. A team might say, “We’re the best” or “We’re better than other people”. Rewards, winning and having nice people in the group makes a group very attractive. Also establishing shared goals. 

Shared goals are interdependent goals. I create a goal within a group where I win if you win, and I lose if you lose. I don’t get my bonus unless we all get our goals. That’s establishing interdependent goals. 

I was once in a group where I had to help people find a new career. It was a big bank that had a wave of unemployment and people were getting fired left, right and centre. I was responsible for a career counselling group. The goal of that group was that everyone would find work. I had to establish cohesiveness by creating a shared goal. At the beginning I told everyone that the group will only be disbanded after everyone has found a job. Initially, everyone agreed to this goal because they didn’t understand the consequence yet. But as time went on, of course the best people found jobs most quickly but had to stay in the group. They were annoyed, they’d reached their own goal and found a job and wanted to leave. I said, “No, you’ve signed a paper and it’s legally binding. You have to stay in the group until everyone has found a job.” After a while those people got so tired of being in the group and wanted to get on with their lives and start their new job so they started finding jobs for the people who were left in the group. By the end everyone had found a job. 

This is how to establish interdependent goals, and to create more cohesion in a group. You have to make the group attractive so it has a function for someone in their life and there have to be shared goals where people are interdependent.


2. Social Identity:


Another way of establishing a cohesion is to create a social identity. This is based on the work of Tajfel and Turner, and is a bit controversial. In this strategy to create cohesion you create a process called social comparison. I don’t really like this way of creating cohesion, but you see it a lot in American companies. I’m an expat kid, so we moved country every three years. I always went to international schools, which were really American schools. And within American schools you really learn how to compete. Almost everything is a competition. You get points not only for academics, but also for sports, for music, and even for your social interaction. I remember getting report cards on which I got a score for how much I was helping other people in the class.

Tajfel and Turner used social comparison as a way of establishing cohesion. You do this by creating an in-group and an out-group. You make the in-group much more attractive than the out-group. In TA terms we’d say you create a minus plus position, I’m okay and you’re a bit less okay than I am. The idea is that if people feel like they’re in a more OK group, they will feel more social cohesion. 

The social cohesion in this case is reactive and more vulnerable, I think, than the first strategy. It’s reactive because it depends on you thinking that the people outside of the group are less than you are. It’s a risk. You see companies and teams do it with “We’re gonna win,” “We are the best,” or “We’re number one.” If people see themselves as a member of the group and they see themselves as ideal and they compare themselves with the external world and the external world is worse, the idea theoretically is that you create more social cohesion within the group. 

One of the ways people do it is also to say everyone out there is an enemy and we have to win. If people think that way, you also get social cohesion but it’s temporary and it’s based on fear. So you have to be careful, especially in times when the whole world is in crisis. Everything has a social consequence.


3. Social Exchange:


The third way increasing cohesion is through social exchange. Social exchange theory is where individuals make decisions concerning the desirability of interaction with others based on rewards and costs (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). This is a bit more subtle than the second strategy, but still risky. 

To create social cohesion, it has to be more rewarding to be part of the group than it is not to be part of a group. That sounds really logical, doesn’t it? So the rewards of membership have to be higher than the costs of membership. That makes sense, doesn’t it? So if you have the feeling that you’re getting more out of being a member of an organization than the cost, for instance, in terms of losing time, losing contact with family, travel time, boredom with your work or routine work you will have increased cohesion. If the rewards are larger, in terms of being a member status, salary, then you will stay as a member of that group and you will feel cohesive. 

So far, so good. What was interesting about Thibaut is that he said it’s not only this link between higher rewards and lower costs, this relationship is mediated by three other factors. The equation of higher rewards, lower costs works only when:

  1. People feel there are no alternatives, 
  2. their investment is high, and 
  3. their expectations are low. 

For a long time I worked on a helpline for women who were being abused. And I always thought to myself, one evening we’re “saving” them and that the next day they go back to that relationship. How is that possible? 

I was young then, so I didn’t have that subtlety of thinking that Thibaut was proposing. In an abusive relationship, the cost of the relationship is higher than reward obviously. So it shouldn’t be able to work. Logically you’d think that people would leave. But the fact of the matter is there are three mediating factors. Most people in an abusive relationship think there are no alternatives – they believe nobody else will love them or that there is nowhere else to go. And so they stay. 

The second mediating factor is investment. A lot of people in abusive relationships believe their investment in the relationship – history, they know them so well, there might be kids – is so high that they stay. And so they stay. 

And the third mediating factor is expectations. We know often people in abusive relationships come from abusive families and so their expectation of relationships are very, very low. And so they stay. 

It’s interesting that the formula of creating cohesion that Thibaut proposes can explain why people stay in abusive relationships. It also explains why people stay in organizations and teams, even though on the surface you would think they would leave.

So the third strategy of creating cohesion is to use this social exchange formula to create cohesion. Practically, it means that you increase the reward of membership, you lower the cost, and you make sure that people have few options which are as good out there in the labour market. You make sure that people invest, which means that the harder people work, the more they’re invested, the more they will stay. It’s a very interesting a consequence of this formula. And also you make sure that the expectations that they have that you meet in the team are higher than what they actually expect. So if you exceed the expectations of your employees, they will actually stay longer.

We’ve talked about the importance of creating cohesion during times of crisis and  the three strategies to do so. The first strategy is to create interpersonal attractiveness and  interdependent goals. The second strategy is to create social identity with an in-group and out-group, where the in-group is a little bit better than the out-group.  And the third strategy is based on social exchange theory, where we create higher rewards, lower costs with the three mediating factors in between.




Cohesiveness as an outcome of social identity and social attraction (Tajfel & Turner, 1979)


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Published On: April 22nd, 2020By Categories: Leadership, Videos


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