Using patterns from nature provides leaders a shortcut to success. In nature, all social species groom. The apes, gorillas and monkeys groom physically. We happen to groom verbally. We use our vocal capability in the form of social chit-chat, or gossip, to form and maintain alliances and to bond with others.
In studying wild chimps for more than 50 years, Dr Jane Goodall says that two chimps cannot possibly be bonded unless they spend time grooming. The same applies for leaders: we cannot possibly be bonded with colleagues unless we spend time grooming. And grooming conversations do not include discussions about job goals, project plans and spreadsheet. Grooming conversations are those that create a connection between two people – at one level around understanding each other better (our interests, hobbies and family) and at another level, chit-chat about what’s happening around the organisation.
Nature gives us a rule of thumb for the proportion of the work day that should be spent grooming. Chimps spend about 20% of their day grooming. That’s how important grooming is in the dynamics of social living. Leaders should spend about the same time forming and maintaining bonds – with their direct reports, their own boss, their peers and external stakeholders such as clients.
You’ll find that the people you connect with best are those whom you have a good level of bonding conversations with. Build other relationships through this force of nature.
A specific action is to monitor the nature of your conversations. Do a fair proportion of your interactions involve social chit-chat, or are they too much one way or the other?
Often the unhealthy end of the continuum is when our interactions are almost entirely task-based. Equally unhealthy is where people are overly social and their day is derailed by too much chit-chat.
Andrew O’Keeffe is director of Hardwired Humans, which focuses on helping organisations design their people practises based on human instincts. He is author of Hardwired Humans and The Boss. He has a background in senior HR roles with IBM, Optus, Sinclair Knight Merz and Hewitt Associates. He is contactable at [email protected]