Anchors in Changing Times

What’s changed for you in 2020?

  • A boss or colleague left your organization
  • New government restrictions changed how you do your job
  • Your team implemented a new process

It wouldn’t matter if you read those bullets today, ten years ago, or even a century ago. Largely, they’re the same concerns we face virtually every year. Humans don’t react well to change, so these concerns mean that we have foreboding cultural angst that manifests itself as plain old worry.

As effective managers, we have the option of giving in to that worry or creating an environment where our peers, team members, and managers can worry just a little bit less. We can best alleviate the worry by leveraging social “anchors” in the world around us. In a sea of change, anchors provide a desperately needed degree of constancy.

Social Anchor Theory

Under Social Anchor Theory, some common contexts and norms provide steadiness in an unsteady world. Any time we can point to something unchanging, it’s an anchor. Even when disasters and civil unrest make members of society believe that life will never get back to normal, people turn to the aspects of their world that do not and will not change.

The concept of Social Anchor Theory is that we all can stabilize the world around us by recognizing those elements that will not change. It’s the reason a warm fire in the fireplace feels cozy. Those who appreciate a roaring fire know that passion will not change with time or situation. And while a hometown may grow or morph over time, it’s still a hometown, with some (if not all) of the familiar trappings.

As leaders, we can develop social anchors for our people. Utility companies do this by opening every meeting with a “Safety Minute.” Some organizations drag out the same holiday decorations for every holiday. Some managers have standard greetings that they use in virtually every situation. And while it may seem those become trite or hackneyed, they serve to anchor our expectations in routines. And those anchors become a comfort.
It creates the opportunity to identify the elements of our workplace and culture that become norms. What norms can leaders create?

  • Food – Be it doughnuts or lobster, a regular treat can become an anchor

  • Art – Whether it’s Dogs Playing Poker or Girl with a Pearl Earring, the familiarity of a piece of art becomes anchoring over time

  • Ceremony – Following the same protocols time and again eventually becomes an anchor

  • Theater – Consistently referring to the same plays or movies (e.g., These aren’t the droids you’re looking for) can develop into anchors as well

The idea is to provide cues that are consistent — and ideally unique — to the agency, organization, or team. Once those cues are well-ensconced, they become social context. Indeed, they may even become what Clopton refers to as social capital. They have intrinsic value in the relationship setting involved.

Why Bother Creating Anchors?

Over time, social anchors create a shared sense of service and commitment. Researcher Jessica Sellick points to several studies that demonstrate that social anchors also attract a higher caliber of talent. She asserts that anchors create staying power in the workplace, making it harder to leave.

Begin applying Social Anchor Theory today by drawing attention to the common, long-lived elements in your organization’s environment and affirm the comfort they provide. It’s a huge, long-term win.

Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP, is the principal and founder of Pritchard Management Associates and a senior instructor at Management Concepts. An expert lecturer, author, researcher, instructor, and coach, Carl focuses on project management, particularly risk and communications. Carl earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University and PMP. He welcomes your comments and insights.