Is business anti-social?

Research by Matthew Lieberman of UCLA suggests that for humans, ‘social is our basic operating system.’

He goes on to say that one of the reasons organisations and the workplace may not be ‘socially conscious’ is that most managers and leaders are promoted for using their analysing and strategic thinking skills which tend to switch off their social neural networks.

No wonder then that so many workplaces are grim, joyless and dehumanising, and that stress is the single biggest cause of absenteeism, certainly in the UK. Not only are people expected to work harder and smarter and hit targets, they are also being managed by people who lack the social skills to give us a sense of community, of common purpose, who will engage with us and enthuse us and help us to become the best we can be.

Daniel Goleman is probably one of the most famour exponents of the idea of Emotional Intelligence as the key differentiator between great and not-so-good leaders. The idea of EI has its critics – not in principle so much but in how Goleman interprets his evidence – but research increasingly points to social skills as a key characteristic of great leadership.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review (July-August 2005) Jim Collins (of Good to Great fame) talked about Level 5 Leadership. He focused on a paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will as being the key characteristics of great leaders. Interestingly, his hierarchy was not sequential. Level 4 Leaders – characterised by highly analytical and strategic-thinking brains – do not graduate to become Level 5 Leaders.

This would seem to support Liebemann’s idea that too much analytical thinking is bad for us socially. It would also confirm the view that promoting technically skilled people into managerial roles can be disastrous for the individual concerned, for the people who have to work for him/her, and for the organisation as a whole. It used to be called the Peter Principle – people are promoted to the level of their greatest incompetence. If you are good at one job you get promoted to another. As soon as you are not good at your job you never get another promotion. Your career is a shipwreck and you become marooned in a job that is like a slow death, unwilling to lose face by requesting a demotion, unhappy, demoralised. I suspect a lot of such practices still take place. How much more attention do we give to technical rather than social skills in a competency framework or a job description?

I would go so far as to say that anyone with good social skills may be regarded as suspect in many organisations. They certainly won’t ‘get on’ as quickly or reach the heights of their colleagues from finance or legal. (That’s not say that accountants and lawyers don’t possess social skills  or that HR people are all empathy and motivation. I generalise to make the point.)

Taking Liebemann’s point – I wonder what it would be like if we regarded our organisations as communities and utilised the socio-cultural neurons our brains have evolved over millennia, as opposed to favouring the analytical parts of our brain and seeing humans as a set of technical competencies, ignoring their social needs.

Like the boss who removed the water coolers from his business because people were, in his view, spending too long at them chatting…




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