When it ’s OK to think of your employees as monkeys

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5th May 2016

I was offered my first job when I was 13, working in a farm shop for the princely sum of 20p an hour. Even back in the murk of the last century, 20p an hour was the equivalent of a slap in the face with a wet kipper. My Dad went mad. ‘You’re not taking it,’ he said. ‘Why not?’ I wanted to know. ‘Because,’ he answered, ‘People who pay peanuts get monkeys, that’s why. And you, Susy, are not a monkey.’

He was wrong on two counts. People get monkeys regardless of how much they pay them. And I, regardless of his protestations, am as much of a chimp as the next man. Woman. Whatever. As Professor Stephen Peters explains in his book The Chimp Paradox, we all have a chimp inside us. It’s the emotional part of our brain, the part that gets mad when someone cuts in front of us on a dangerous corner, such that we find ourselves chasing them up the highway, hoping they end up in a ditch. Our inner chimp is impulsive. It rushes in where angels fear to tread. In logical terms, it’s the part of our brain that’s most likely to land us in trouble. Don’t be too hard on it, though, because it’s also the part that propels us out of the path of a runaway bus before our rational brain has had a chance to process the fact that there’s a problem. Seen in that context, it’s keeping us alive.

What’s that got to do with your employees? Well, if you want to sell them on a new idea, you need to embrace their inner chimps. Not literally, obviously – that could land you in all kinds of trouble. To paraphrase the good professor, one of the secrets of success is to learn to live with the chimp and not get bitten or attacked by it. Peters was talking about our own chimp, but the same principle applies to other people’s. Every message you communicate to your staff goes to their chimp in the first instance, long before it reaches the logical, human part of their brain. There are no exceptions. And so if you want to avoid being bitten and get your idea to stick with them, you need to understand how their chimp behaves and why it thinks and acts in the way it does.

The chimp is all about survival. Remember that runaway bus? The chimp doesn’t stop and think, ‘Oh, that’s a number 15; it goes past the zoo’. No: it just sees danger and gets you out of the way fast. So if you want to take advantage of the power of the chimp, you need to wrap your new idea in a way that alerts the chimp’s survival instinct. You have to show the chimp that its survival is threatened. Threatened by a problem that your new idea will solve.

The chimp sees things in black and white, and it wants to choose the best path, which means the safest path with the least danger. It can only do that if it has a clear choice – a good option compared to a bad option. There are no grey areas. It needs contrast. Contrast the benefits of your new idea with the negative issues you’re trying to solve, and you’ll make it easy for your staff to get behind it.

Finally, the chimp likes things simple, because it wants to evaluate things quickly. It hates not understanding. So break down your new idea into simple chunks that appeal to the chimp’s senses. Only when the information is passed to the logical, human part of your employees’ brains by their chimp can they evaluate it rationally.

Let’s see an actual example of how it works. Imagine you want to introduce a new time recording system into your company. That means a change, and a change means risk for the chimp – a big trigger for digging his heels in and resisting.

Instead of just announcing the change and dealing with the resistance, explain that the old system isn’t supported any longer and because of that some overtime payments haven’t been going through. Suddenly your employee’s chimp is on red alert, because he feels threatened. What – no money??? Drive the point home by highlighting how it takes 30 minutes EVERY WEEK to fill in – that’s 25 hours a year: three-and-a-half days they’ll never get back. By now the chimp’s feeling REALLY threatened. He realises that NOT changing is the real risk here, and he’s ready to hear about the new system. You’ve given him a cause to take action and do something differently.

Now go on to explain how the new system takes ten minutes a week to use and payments are made automatically and with no errors. So your staff get back some of their life, and they get paid in time. Because you’ve kept your message simple, they can easily compare the old way that’s no longer working with the new, better way. Instead of resisting change they embrace it, because you’ve made the choice easy for them.

Remember, every time you want to introduce a new concept or improve your process, your employees’ chimp brains are threatened. Their chimps will ALWAYS choose the status quo, unless you give them a powerful enough reason not to. If you want to effect change in your organisation, it’s not your employee’s rational mind you need to convince.

It’s their inner monkey.

Here’s Slingshot’s Founding Guru Calum with more on the chimp brain:



Like this? Click here to read more about how to engage the chimp brain.