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Why executives and HR need to make time to observe

What watching chimpanzees can teach HR professionals and leaders about the powers of observation

We recently listened to a remarkable BBC Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific which concerned the work of Frans De Waal, a famous Dutch primatologist and ethologist (though he now resides in Atlanta as a Professor at Emory University). The programme made a huge impression. De Waal's research which focusses on the behaviour of non-human primates like chimpanzees, bonobos and capuchin monkeys, made us reconsider some of our fundamental assumptions about what distinguishes human beings from their very near genetic neighbours – the other higher primates.

Our view had been that language, consciousness and morality were solely the property of human beings and that this represented a giant gulf from any other species. Quite simply De Waal shows that this view is wrong. His research demonstrates that other higher primates have the capacity for empathy, cooperation and conflict resolution. He even shows that they have an understanding of social justice.

After days of letting these revolutionary thoughts sink in, another question started to animate us. How did he find these things out? Or to put this in philosophical terms: what’s the relationship between De Waal's epistemology (his definition of knowledge) and his methodology (how you can acquire more knowledge). Our conclusion is that De Waal's work over the last 30 years has rested heavily on the power of observation. In his early career his office even overlooked the chimpanzee enclosure.

We have argued with executives for some time that they spend too little time on observation- on watching people work, how they cooperate, how they handle conflict, if and when they innovate, how they treat customers, how they interact with suppliers and their response to authority and the rule structure of the organisation.

Instead of engaging in this, executives allow themselves to be detained in long meetings with other executives, or find themselves poring over detailed numerical accounts of how their organisation is performing. They don’t make sufficient time to just watch. Without this they never develop what we have called elsewhere the meta skill of leadership – situation sensing (without it, you cannot develop the other leadership skills). To use an English idiom it’s the ability to 'smell the gravy.'

Why don’t executives find time to observe? Let's consider the options. Some feel like it doesn’t constitute real work. Some aren’t quite sure what they are looking for. Some are over reliant on what they think of as 'hard' data.

But we have observed an even more worrying trend in recent years. In many Western societies we send clever people to schools with other clever people. When they leave, we send them to elite universities where they mix with even cleverer people and when they leave university, we send them to top business schools like Harvard, Stanford, London and Insead. Guess what they end up being good at? Interacting with other clever people.

This might work if they head off to work for McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group but it certainly won't work if they’re running a supermarket for Walmart. They have lost the capacity to interact with people who aren’t just like them – those who might lack their intellectual and social capital. This perhaps explains why leadership development often rests upon rich and diverse early experiences.

There is yet another worrying trend. This failure to find time for observation is often worst of all in the HR department. Recent developments in HR metrics, more complex analytical techniques and perhaps an attempt to look a little more like the finance department, have led many HR professionals to think that you can do great HR sitting in front of your PC. They couldn’t be more wrong. HR professionals, perhaps more than any other, need to find time to hang around in their organisations. They should be visiting work places – watching and listening very attentively.

Thelonious Monk, the legendary jazz musician, once remarked: “what you don’t play can be more important than what you do”. That’s a skill HR really needs – what people are not saying can be as important as what they say. Really smart HR functions like Bosch use clever techniques to make sure they get to know what’s really going on. They use reverse mentoring to make sure that their young talent is heard and listened to. L’Oreal has enlisted the power of social media to stay in touch with their employees. But useful as those techniques are, they are no substitute for careful, insightful observation.

Can skilful observation be learnt? Try this little experiment. Next time you go to an art gallery, spend 30 minutes looking at three paintings without using the audio guide. Now look at the same paintings again wearing the headphones. Here is our prediction – you will see the paintings differently and probably better. In other words: the audio commentary is helping you to see.

Some years ago, we were asked to do some consulting to a major supermarket chain. The company insisted that before we started the work, we visit six stores for a day in the company of employees. What a great investment of time. We learnt what to look for in supermarkets. More recently, we’ve come to know some detectives in The Metropolitan Police – guess what their observation skills are like? Absolutely first class because they have spent many years observing human behaviour and often noting it. We often advise executives when they take up a new project or move jobs, to keep a diary of their observations. The very act of making notes sharpens your situation sensing capability.

So if you want to become the equivalent of Frans De Waal in your organisation, make time for careful observation.

Rob Goffee is Emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. Gareth Jones is visiting professor at IE Business School. They are co-authors of books including Why should anyone be led by you? and Why should anyone work here?