Why the CEO cares about you – the monkey sphere revisited

As part of a large organization, the regular interactions people within the organization will have with their CEO and their board memberds are overwhelmingly one-directional. There’s webcasts, town halls (remember being in a room with hundreds of people? Strange times), blog posts, interviews, video messages and so on. While there might be a way to ask questions and get feedback, I would not describe this interaction as a personal one. Relative to the number of people working in the organization, not many people will have a direct relationship with the board or the CEO. It’s even worse with the top managememt of companies you do not work for, the chances of meeting them in person are slim. Well, at least for me – maybe you’re super popular with CEOs?

However, you might recall what I wrote a while ago about the monkey sphere. It’s the amount of people our brain is capable of seeing as, well, people, because we cannot sustain more than a set number of social relationships. Everyone else kind of becomes the backdrop to one’s personal story. That does not mean that a person does not care about the wellbeing of people outside of that sphere, it just means that our little monkey brains are incapable of truly conceptualizing those outside the sphere as actual, real people with a social relationship to us. So, for someone working in a large organization, the chances are high the CEO and the board will not be part of their personal monkey sphere, and vice versa. Again, even worse with the management of other companies.

This puts any leadership team in a difficult position, right? They need to communicate to a lot of people that they do not see, can not see as real people (which does not say they do not respect those people. Again, monkey brains!). And their communication is received by someone who is most likely not able to view them as a person either. If one-directional communication was not difficult enough, this adds additional layers of complexity.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel it’s absolutely necessary for a leadership team to offer frequent and varied communication to their people, and of course those need to be mostly one-directional. Nobody expects their top management to be anything more than human. I do wonder how board members cope with this though. I’ve been noticing a shift in public media where top managers of some companies try to appear more personable, down to earth and “normal” than before. Maybe this is one possible strategy, although it seems a bit weird to me. I mean, when this manager of that company says they care about you as their consumer, honest! But they have never met you, will probably never meet you, and will probably not show up to your next properly socially distanced gathering, what kind of relationship do you really have with them? And seeing how many companies choose to use this kind of strategy, it has to be somewhat effective, so why does it work? For me personally, I noticed that I do tend to react positively to relationship-focused messages by other companies (as a consumer), but only as long as I trust the company. Once there’s been a breach of trust, it seems extra rude to pretend that we have a relationship, and it has a much more negative effect.

So maybe there’s a lesson here even for us non-CEOs and not-board members: If you are choosing to communicate in a way that appeals to others’ social brains, make sure you’re trustworthy.