Leadership   //   May 29, 2023

WTF is ‘threat rigidity’ and how is it showing up in modern leaders?

When we are stressed and faced with uncertainty but still have to make big decisions involving complex variables, we often unconsciously cling to what we know works. Or used to work, at least. What we have experienced before. And that gives the illusion of feeling more in control. Although, psychologists say it can also come across as controlling behavior.

This kind of behavioral pattern is what organizational psychologists refer to as “threat rigidity,” and it’s showing up in modern leaders in a potentially damaging way. If left unchecked, it could widen the current sense of disengagement and disconnection between employers and their employees, experts say. 

We’ve unpacked what it is, and how it can be mitigated. 

So what exactly is threat rigidity and how is it showing up in leaders today? 

CEOs remain in uncharted waters when it comes to figuring out today’s most complex workforce headwinds. But rather than approaching change by doubling down on flexibility and problem-solving, many leaders can resort to a more narrow vision of what they know and recognize. Enter threat rigidity.

The term was first coined in the early ‘80s by organizational psychologist Barry Staw, and his team of researchers in a paper “Threat Rigidity Effects in Organizational Behavior.” But the behavior this term refers to, has bubbled up lately with certain, rigid return-to-office mandates, from CEOs that appear out of step with the mood of their workforces.

When Lyft’s new CEO David Risher demanded employees return to the office, as reported by the New York Times, Bob Sutton, an organizational psychologist and a professor at Stanford said that while there may seem valid reasons to enforce RTO it could also be due to that leader’s need to feel more in control. And he referred to this as a standard case of “thread rigidity.”

“The main idea is when individuals, groups, and organizations are under threat, similar effects are seen at all levels, many that stem from cognitive narrowing and the associated simplification and inability to deal with complexity and concentration of power among top dogs,” he later tweeted, in reference to the Lyft CEO’s proposed RTO plan. 

And it’s not confined to Lyft. There have been very unflattering spotlights on other CEOs which have subsequently led to headlines like “bad bosses go viral.” 

“CEOs are reverting back to known patterns,” said Guy Beaudin, senior partner at leadership consulting firm RHR International and executive leadership consultant. “There’s a nostalgia for how things used to be and a challenge of acknowledging that the world has moved on,” he added. 

It may be the last bastion of the traditional hierarchical workplace cultures, he stressed. “Personally I think hybrid is here to stay and that we will come to see this very rigid five days a week in the office, as being really the last gasp of the command and control generation,” he said. 

Isn’t the pressure to make complex decisions around changing variables, par for the course for CEOs? 

Of course. Leaders have always had to face complex challenges, like uncertain economies and recessions or other crises related to their specific business. But today’s leaders face a cocktail of unprecedented changes, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. They have had to keep their organizations afloat through Covid-19 and its disruption to workforces and work models. And they’re still dealing with the knock-on effect caused by our increased reliance on digital channels for workplace communications, plus widely changed employee work-life demands, that stemmed from mass remote working.

And we can now add figuring out how and when to implement artificial intelligence within their organizations as an additional pressure point. 

“The complexity of our world has skyrocketed over the last several years. And what we’ve got to ask ourselves when we think about leaders and executives, is has their ability to navigate complexity kept pace with the rising complexity in the world around them?” said Ryan Gottfredson, leadership professor at Cal State Fullerton University and a neuroscience-leadership consultant who advises leaders and executive teams on how to develop as leaders, globally. 

The reality is, it hasn’t. “So many executives are faced with are circumstances where the complexity of their world exceeds their ability to navigate that complexity. And that is a really tricky situation and when that occurs, the threat rigidity kicks in. Because now I need to figure out a way to control this environment that feels out of control for me,” added Gottfredson. 

Let’s unpack the neuroscience around this some more.

This is an unconscious, emotional response to threats that a leader feels about the state of their organization. 

“Every leader is at a different level for their window of tolerance for things like change, pressure, stress, complexity and uncertainty,” said Gottfredson. “When they get thrown outside their window of tolerance, that’s when their executive functioning goes out the window. And they are now driven by their emotions, which are largely dictating how they think and process at an unconscious level.”

Given, this is an unconscious response, it’s incumbent on us to really try and understand what’s underneath this kind of behavior, to push closer to a constructive outcome, according to Beaudin. 

“CEOs are reverting back to known patterns. There's a nostalgia for how things used to be and a challenge of acknowledging that the world has moved on.”
Guy Beaudin, senior partner at executive leadership consultancy RHR International.

Some of it comes down to how some leaders like to work best. Those who are extroverts may find they work best when they have all their people physically around them, and that gives them energy. Or they might problem solve best when they can walk around their office, feel the bustle, and get the pulse of the organization that way. 

“This caricature of the non-empathetic CEO is really very rare,” said Beaudin. “So exploring where that rigidity comes from, there is usually something valid underneath that question. It’s not that they have a complete disregard for the emotional well-being of their employees.” 

When it comes to mandating RTO, it’s not always triggered by rational reasons but more human, emotional ones, he added. “So I think for me, that’s the first question to ask, ‘what is the CEO really missing and can we redesign their work experience, so that that they’re getting some of what they’re missing in that workspace?’”

Some of the main arguments for RTO – that productivity and culture are better in-office – are valid though.

Wanting to maintain a strong internal culture is of course a vital part of any organization’s ongoing success. It’s important for talent attraction and retention, employee well-being and productivity and effectiveness. But to claim that this can only be achieved when in an office, is a “smokescreen,” according to Beaudin.

“I want to debunk the culture question because we don’t build culture by telling people what to do,” he said. “It’s now destroying culture by forcing people back five days a week as opposed to building culture.”

“So many executives are faced with are circumstances where the complexity of their world exceeds their ability to navigate that complexity. And that is a really tricky situation and when that occurs, the threat rigidity kicks in. Because now I need to figure out a way to control this environment that feels out of control for me.”
Ryan Gottfredson, leadership consultant and leadership professor at Cal State Fullerton University.

The missteps occur when leaders associate culture with people just physically being in the same place. Fixating on the location, rather than thinking intentionally about what work will be conducted more effectively in person, and what will be better executed remotely. 

Another argument for pulling people back to the office is to ensure younger employees are getting the necessary access to senior coworkers and benefiting from soaking up knowledge by the osmosis effect of being physically exposed to different work scenarios. 

That’s extremely valid. But there are ways to create a culture of learning in the workplace by being thoughtful and intentional about when to bring people together, and when not to, according to Beaudin. “When you bring people together make sure that you’re providing them with an experience of the culture of the organization,” he said. “Just putting people together doesn’t create culture.” 

Currently, the number of CEOs demanding employees return to the office five days a week is slim. The far more common model is two or three days in the office. But these hybrid models aren’t always creating the desired effect.

“I think that there needs to be an openness to the fact that the way we've worked for the last three years was crisis driven. This was not a thoughtful, intentional, planned restructuring of work.” 
Cali Yost, founder and CEO of Flex+Strategy Group.

The employers that are having more success are those which have put a lot of time and effort into figuring out why they need employees in the office, then building the when around that, said Beaudin. 

One of RHR’s clients has its people come together one week a month, for five days. And during those five days there are structured components around learning, purpose and social connection. “That does mean yes you need to bring in some nice food, have better coffee and have your executives be in that environment,” said Beaudin. “If everybody has a chance to interact with people in the C-suite at some point during those in-office moments, you’re creating culture. You’re creating a reason for people to come into the workplace.”

Should employees also be willing to compromise more?

Yes. This isn’t about never going into the office. It shouldn’t be. There are very valid reasons to bring people physically together at certain points, in order to perform certain tasks that get better outcomes when they’re brainstormed, or problem solved collectively for example. Or if a new client is onboarding and they’d like some in-person time to create a solid relationship. It’s tying the concept of productivity to the location that is the issue.

“I think that there needs to be an openness to the fact that the way we’ve worked for the last three years was crisis driven,” said Cali Yost, CEO of workplace consultancy Flex+ Strategy Group. “This was not a thoughtful, intentional, planned restructuring of work.” 

And there are gaps in learning and mentoring occurring, and in many cases the quality of the work, that are real, she added. However, these gaps don’t necessarily require us to go back to the way things were, but to look at how to improve, she stressed.

“The challenge is that we’re [employees and employers] not meeting in the middle,” said Yost. And that means employees too are exhibiting signs of threat rigidity. “[They’re thinking] You’re threatening the way I have worked for the last three years, I don’t want that to go away so I am not listening to you. I’m going to double down and say the way you’re telling me to do it is outdated and no longer applies. I won’t participate.” 

On the flip side, you have the leaders pushing to have people conform to their own understanding of how things work. “That rigidity [on both sides] is keeping us from moving forward, added Yost. 

From career cushioning to quiet quitting, the workplace has a new language. Check out the WorkLife dictionary to learn the latest terms.