Friday, August 25, 2006

Communities of practice: the ape in the corner office

I have read a book by Richard Conniff, The ape in the corner office; I actually read the Dutch translation which is 'Gorilla's in krijtstreep'. On the website there is a quiz, music, postcards, you name it, and it's there! Couldn't resist the quiz ofcourse and this is my result:

The Ape in the corner office says:
Well, now! (5 of 7)
You clearly know how to read your environment and use it to stay alive. Still, a few useful insights into the corporate jungle could help you swing through the treetops. Check out The Ape in the Corner Office for a few pointers.

Not too bad as I tend to see office politics as a waste of time (and when it takes too much of my energy, I seriously consider resigning and working fulltime as freelancer).

What the book basically does is explain group dynamics (using examples of animal groups), especially hierarchy and collaboration in groups. It adds some physiological explanations too, like the fact that your level of dopamine increases when someone trusts you and that gives you a good feelings. Hence when you have faith and trust in a good collaborative group it gives you pleasant feelings through higher levels of dopamine (and oxytocine). The book explains group processes with more subtlety than Tuckman's famous model for team development with the 4 stages: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. Reality always seems much more dynamic than this model suggests.

Conniff explains why status is often more important than content, what Senge also refered to in his explanation of processes which inhibit organisational learning. Who says something is often more important than what is being said. In that sense this book helps me to understand better why this is so. We can't do away with group dynamics, even though we have more ways of influencing group processes than apes (communication!).

Practical tips for office life: there are too little excuses on the work floor, conflicts are natural, but without reconciliation process it can have a high cost as it bring tension for the whole group. If high chimps fight, the onlookers are extremely tense. A reconciliation relieves the tension.

Interesting for cross-cultural work is that 3000 out of the 10000 facial expressions are uniform across cultures, the same expressions are linked to the same feelings. In Conniff's book examples are given to support the statement that we are loosing the capacity to 'read' those expressions properly.

Basic strategies we can learn from these group dynamics amongst apes:

  1. Take care of the natural shyness of people around you
  2. Be very careful with unjustified agression, it's dangerous
  3. Work with the group, a leader can give the group something good to imitate, and bring in diversity in perspectives to avoid groupthink
  4. Expect hierarchy, competition for status and hierarchy is natural
  5. Share success, it creates loyalty
  6. Have faith, but keep on monitoring
  7. Do good, work together and reconcile
  8. Watch non-verbal clues
  9. Conflicts can be healthy, but don't let them escalate

We can see communities of practice as new 'groups' in an organisation or across organisations, which will bring new group dynamics, new leadership, new status issues, etc. But this time not intersecting with formal hierarchy (hence wilder??).

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