When a leader engages an employee in meaningful small talk that involves the appropriate level of detail--neither too generic nor too personal--the meta-message being delivered is: I see you. You matter to me. And this relationship matters to me. In short, let's trust each other.
From my perspective as a coach working with CEOs and other senior leaders, the ability to make small talk with employees is one of the most useful management tools--and one of the most under-appreciated. Small talk--the brief, informal exchanges that precede and follow meetings and other formal events--can play a uniquely valuable role in our professional relationships, although its importance varies widely from one setting to another.
Why can small talk have such a big impact? Possibly because it's a highly evolved form of "social grooming"--a common behavior among mammals that is believed to serve a range of functions transcending basic hygiene. Research by anthropologist Robin Dunbar and others indicates that social grooming in primates is a function of group size, suggesting that it helps maintain harmonious relationships in larger social units where individuals may have less frequent contact with each other.
Dunbar has even proposed that human language evolved from social grooming, and while this theory remains controversial, it's clear that "vocal grooming" can play a significant role in effective relationships. As science educator Kate Fehlhaber has noted, "Social grooming [in humans] can take on a completely non-physical form due to our extensive spoken and written language and is probably [our] dominant form of social grooming. A few kind words are often all the 'grooming' it takes to strengthen social relationships."
So what does this look like in organizational life? As I wrote in Five Levels of Communication, exploring a model developed by my Stanford colleague Richard Francisco, the most basic form of communication is "ritual," the simple interactions that allow people to acknowledge each other, such as our daily greetings and goodbyes in the workplace. Despite its simplicity, ritual serves a meaningful purpose--as Francisco has noted, ritual allows us to feel more at ease with each other even in a fleeting exchange. The next level in Francisco's model is "extended ritual," which includes all of the longer exchanges that can occur when we come together with colleagues, and small talk in professional settings takes one of these forms.
Such conversations are generally confined to a short list of unofficially sanctioned topics, and this norm serves a useful function. While extended ritual provides an opportunity to talk at greater length, it should still be a predictable interaction in which there's minimal risk of surprise or misunderstanding. This insures that the exchange promotes a greater sense of comfort and safety, strengthening the relationship to allow it to accommodate more challenging topics in the future.
Other norms that determine the role played by small talk in a given setting are determined such factors as the nature of the event bringing the participants together, the participants' respective roles, and the surrounding organizational and national culture. Within these norms, in any particular interaction the more senior person generally sets the parameters for small talk--whether or not it occurs, how much time will be devoted to it, and the topics to be addressed.
So if you're the the boss, every interaction--no matter how fleeting--is an opportunity to connect with an employee and build a stronger relationship. For these interactions to be meaningful while adhering to commonly shared expectations, it's important to have clarity on what topics are useful for this purpose. A challenge is that some are so generic that they're unlikely to have the desired impact (e.g. the weather or traffic), while others are so fraught that they could easily derail the conversation (e.g. any number of political issues), and still others are useful with some people but not with others (e.g. sports and other recreational pursuits).
But a topic that's uniquely meaningful and personally relevant to almost everyone is family. And this is where birthdays come in, because if you're the boss and you want to make thoughtful use of these opportunities to connect with your employees, being able to make small talk with them about the people who matter in their lives will usually pay off. This isn't always true, of course, and it's absolutely essential to know when family is a topic to be avoided, but in most cases people find it gratifying to be asked about this aspect of their lives. That said, even a conversation about family can feel trite if you simply ask, "How's the family?" It's helpful to know something about each of your employees and to have this information readily at hand, although the degree of detail necessarily varies by level. Here are some suggestions:
Know whether they have a spouse, partner or SO. If they do, know that person's name. Bonus: Know that person's profession.
Know whether they have kids. If they do, know their kids' names and approximate ages. Bonus: Know their kids' birthdays.
(It's perfectly acceptable to have your EA keep track of this information.)
Know their names. Bonus: Know whether they have a spouse, partner or SO.
Know whether they are parents. Bonus: Know their kids' names.
(It's perfectly acceptable to not know the names of their family members and ask how they're doing.)
Double Skip-Level Employees
Know them well enough to greet them on sight.
Bonus: Know their names.
(It is perfectly acceptable to forget their names and to respectfully ask to be reminded.)
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that every formal interaction be preceded and followed by small talk, or that small talk should take up an undue amount of time. The appropriate cadence and duration will be informed by the factors noted above, particularly the nature of the event and the surrounding culture. But in my experience leaders who fail to make this effort wish they had when a relationship is struggling and they have to have some tougher conversations.
For Further Reading
Five Levels of Communication (2015)
Better Working Relationships (2018)
Functional significance of social grooming in primates (Robin Dunbar, Folia Primatologica, 1991)
Group size, grooming and social cohesion in primates (Julia Lehmann, Amanda Korstjens, and Robin Dunbar, Animal Behavior, 2007)
Group size, vocal grooming and the origins of language (Robin Dunbar, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 2017)
Social Grooming: It's not just for monkeys and prairie voles! (Kate Fehlhaber, Knowing Neurons, 2013)
Photo by R. Nial Bradshaw. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.