Work Matters

Straight Talk and Solid Evidence About Organizational Life

How Often Do You Look at Your Boss? Baboons Do It Every 20 or 30 Seconds

Of Baboons and Bosses

One of the points I make in both Good Boss, Bad Boss and an article I published in Harvard Business Review last year called "How To Be a Good Boss in a Bad Economy (the link to article is here and an interview about it is here) that bosses aren't always sufficiently aware of how closely their subordinates are scrutinizing and trying to make sense of their behavior, and that people watch their bosses every move especially closely when fear is in the air, such is during the tough times so many organizations are suffering now.

The hyperfocus on the creature at the top of the pecking order appears to be evident in other primates as well.  I quote research in the book and article suggesting that in baboon troops, the typical members looks at the the alpha make every 20 to 30 seconds to see what he is doing. This assertion comes from a classic article by anthropologist  Lionel Tiger and here is the key excerpt.  Note the key insight is pretty fascinating:"Chance's argument is that a major, if not the most significant, characteristic of political interaction involves who looks at whom." Start thinking about when you go to your next meeting or when you observe your next meeting -- it is an insight with hundreds of implications, as it reveals the power and communication patterns, and helps explain why, although a group of seven or eight people may all seem to have been at the same meeting, in essence, each saw and heard completely different things.  This quote below is pretty academic, but most academic writing isn't nearly this insightful or intriguing:

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"A proposition by Chance about attention structure requires explication; it may well be one of the few original and useful basic ideas to be developed about political systems in a very long time . Chance's argument is that a major, if not the most significant, characteristic of political interaction involves who looks at whom. The suggestion is that the chief functional difference between the leader and the follower is that the followers look at the leader; the opposite does not happen as regularly or intensely. Chance's proposition refers primarily to primates and applies most obviously to terrestrial animals, such as the baboons, for whom it clearly would be in the interest of survival to centralize information-like that coming from suba-dult males at the more dangerous and revealing periphery of the troop-and to pay close, united regard to the dominant male's signals. This is a deceptively simple idea; its analytical virtue is that it crosscuts a host of structural factors in primate systems and attends to very obvious behavioral ones.

For example, in a baboon troop all animals will glance at the leader every 20 or 30 seconds and return to whatever they are doing. The leader is, of course, normally found at the center of the group, and almost by definition where the leader is constitutes the group's center (except during movement). The forces of interaction then, in common with the general importance of gregariousness in such animals, render these societies centripetal, as Chance calls them, as opposed to centrifugal. The tension between escape and staying and the problems of status and hierarchy are articulated in a relatively elastic but nonetheless definable web which constitutes the boundary between one primate group and another."

I guess that The Office's Michael Scott and that snarling baboon might have more in common than might appear at first.  Indeed, that TV show captures pretty well how closely his people watch him, and how oblivious he can be to their actions, reactions, and needs. As the saying goes, one of the reasons that show is so funny is because it is so true. Large_Carell

P.S. The excerpt is from: "Dominance in Human Societies" Author(s): Lionel Tiger Source: Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 1 (1970), pp. 287-306 Published by: Annual Reviews. 

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Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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