Taming the Office Zoo

Tuesday, May 5, 2015 - 17:20

Guest post by Andrew O’Keefe

This article previously appeared in AIM for Management and Leadership Excellence, AIM’s bi-monthly magazine exclusively for AIM Members.

Leaders of social species all face the same sorts of challenges, and there’s much we can learn, in particular from our primate relatives. We take business leaders to zoos to observe how the great apes do it. The leader of a chimpanzee community is the one that most drives culture.

Chimp leaders rise to the top primarily through alliances and coalitions, and a constructive leader creates social harmony. Meanwhile, gorilla leaders adopt a certain approach to discipline in order to keep their troops in line.

On one occasion we were at Melbourne Zoo at the gorilla exhibit and in the hands of keeper Damian Lewis. As Lewis was introducing us to Rigo the silverback and his "team" we witnessed two of the gorillas bickering. To one of the participants the incident looked very much like issues he was having back at the office.

He asked Lewis, “What does Rigo do if two of his group are misbehaving?” Lewis recounted how Rigo follows a three-step disciplinary process. The purpose of the three steps is to avoid the ultimate discipline, which for us is obviously termination of employment.

For a gorilla the ultimate discipline is a physical reprimand. Rigo’s first step, the bottom of the disciplinary stage, is just his mere presence where he will either strut past the offending individuals or he might glare in their direction. That is usually enough to stop the offending behaviour. If that doesn’t work, his next warning is verbal – he coughs at the offending individual[s]. That’s often as far as he needs to go in signaling his displeasure.

However, if that doesn’t work, then the next step, just short of the ultimate leadership discipline, is a mock charging display. One hundred and sixty-five kilograms of charging silverback generally works. But if not, on those rare occasions when steps one to three don’t work, Rigo will use his ultimate disciplinary act and hit the offender.

While obviously charging and hitting in the workplace is not on, a stepped approach to discipline can maintain order and avoid mayhem breaking out. And from the disciplinary to the collaborative: throughout the animal world social species groom to bond and to reduce the tensions of social living.

The studies of renowned primatologist Dr Jane Goodall informs my work. [She was the first to discover that chimps, like humans, were also able to use tools.] On one occasion she told me: “Two chimps cannot possibly be bonded if they spend no time grooming.”

While other species groom physically, humans do so in the form of social chit-chat. If overwhelmingly the conversations you have with your people are task conversations to do with project updates, KPIs and sales pipelines then despite how important those topics are they do not constitute grooming – and your relationships are compromised.

Our grooming is chatting about our interests, what’s going on in the organisation. It’s what makes us who we are and it’s very prosocial behaviour.

One manager, David, used this method to solve team tension.

We were checking in with his group four months after his group’s first visit to the zoo. David realised through the concept of grooming that he and his team spent no time bonding. He worked out that all he had to do as the leader was to create the environment in which people will bond. David said that the first Friday after the program he took his team for coffee.

He found team tension immediately dissolved. After just the first coffee session people immediately were nicer to each other, backed each other up and a new team member who had trouble fitting in suddenly felt like she belonged. He said the helpful thing for him was that he just needed to set the right place for human nature to do its work.

And now the Friday 9.30am team coffee catch-up has become a ritual.

Andrew O’Keeffe is director of Hardwired Humans and author of Hardwired Humans and The Boss.