Management Rewired

Applying the lessons of cognitive neuroscience to management

Asocial Network

Physical contact can help reestablish the harmony in the group.

As portrayed in the movie, the man responsible for creating the social network. Facebook, is anything but adept at managing social relationships. Perhaps it's to be expected.

Powered by the internet, our increasingly mobile devices now allow us to be in communication with our friends and colleagues 24/7. Every morning, I awake to an inbox crammed with everything from urgent business communications to news of my inheritance from a long lost relative in Nigeria.

My teenage kids, members of the millennial generation, are even more connected. On average, they and their peers send 3400 texts each month. Texting is better than a phone call, according to my youngest, because "you can talk without having to talk." Emails are too slow.

The technology is also transforming how business is done. For knowledge workers, physical colocation is no longer necessary and an increasing number of people are now working from home. I hold online meetings with people half way around the globe and others just ten miles away.

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In a recent newspaper profile, a task team of Harvard seniors boasted that they managed all of their collaboration electronically. They never met face-to-face and couldn't understand why such contact would be necessary.

Though much is gained, something is also lost. One of my clients felt that the high level of interpersonal conflict in their organization stemmed from the tendency to email or IM someone in the next cubicle, rather than having face-to-face communication.

A recent study of championship sports teams found that the quality of athletic performance was proportional to the frequency of touching among the players. Apparently, the physical contact causes the release of the hormone oxytocin, bonding the players to one another and improving teamwork.

After battles for alpha status, both the winning and losing chimpanzees engage in thigh kissing and mutual grooming. The physical contact apparently helps to reestablish the harmony of the band.

Although each may be driven by the selfish gene, humans have historically benefitted from collaboration, whether through mutual defense, sharing of resources, or joint work efforts. Neuroscientists believe the exponential growth in the size of the brain over the last 250,000 years was driven by the demands of managing social interaction.

For the vast majority of that time, our interactions have been through immediate physical channels. Electronic communication is impoverished by comparison. So that we are not as tone deaf to social nuances as Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed to be, we need to seek out opportunities to actually reach out and touch somebody.

It is my job to help business organizations function as optimally as possible. Usually, the venue for my work is an offsite meeting where we methodically work through how best to execute the competitive strategy. While we come out of the meeting with good processes and systems, I often think the real benefit comes from people sharing a drink or a meal together.

When mutual grooming and nit picking aren't appropriate, good old face-to-face communication works wonders.

 

Charles S. Jacobs is the author of Management Rewired.

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