Great Minds Discuss Ideas

Why nobody cares about your status in the monkey house of work – and neither should you

Where you’ve got a group of people who are directly or indirectly dependent on each other for their needs, and when you can tell who does what and what their status is, then you’ve got a ‘Social Hierarchy’.

Social hierarchies guide behavior in many species, including humans, in many kinds of settings – domestic, work, and recreational. In each setting, the social hierarchy helps to define what’s considered the appropriate behaviour in that setting. Things as seemingly simple as how hard people work in your work-group are strongly influenced by the ‘social norms’ which form part of that hierarchy.

What’s also really interesting is that research shows that people’s social status strongly predicts their well-being, morbidity, and even survival!

And it seems that our brains are hard-wired to do this. In 2008, human imaging studies identified the specific brain circuitry associated with social status. Researchers found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in a pecking order. Or even when they simply look at people perceived as being their social superiors or inferiors. Circuitry activated by important events responded to a potential change in hierarchical status as much as it did to winning money – reflecting its influential role in human motivation and health.


So it’s no surprise then, that a lot of our focus and attention at work is around other people. Who said what to who, who is doing what, who’s on their way up (or down). We cannot NOT think about how our standing in the social hierarchy is affected by the actions of other people and by the events around us.


But it’s very important to realise that this hard-wired aspect of our brains and behaviour is just a survival mechanism. It’s like we’re all really still a big troop of monkeys, and the most important thing we choose to do is just to make sure that the other monkeys aren’t going to abandon, ostracise or exploit us.

This is one reason why I love that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt in the picture above: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people”.

Being like a kind of advanced troop of monkeys and spending all our time focussed on what other people say and do is not enough on its own. If you want to have real impact, monkey-stuff will not move things on, it will only serve to protect the overall social hierarchy. To create real progress or genuine individual advancement (which isn’t just “I win/you lose”), we need to move our focus beyond people and events, and into the realm of ideas.

Ideas which inspire new ways of doing things, which catch-on like wildfire, which disrupt the ‘norms’ – that’s where to look if you’re ready to stop just monkeying around.

What kinds of things might help you have your next great idea?


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

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