Through my two decades as an entrepreneur, I learned this with my own businesses, as well as watching other successful small business operators and how they inspired their employees.
I have a playbook for this, comprised of tactics and approaches that have worked. But instead, I want to talk about a study that was published in December of 2020 on the value of “water cooler talk.”
The study, out of the University of California at Santa Cruz, suggested that in settings where people are working together on a task, making time for small talk allows for a newly defined behavior called “reciprocity in conversation,” which is associated with higher levels of task enjoyment.
“Whether in the workplace or our personal lives, most people have a strong preference for balanced conversations, where each person is able to ‘get their two cents in,’” according to a summary of the study. “In fact, new research published in Language and Speech shows that people take corrective action to ensure a two-way flow of conversation when situational factors, like defined roles for working together on a task, create an imbalance in how each person is able to contribute.”
In other words, everyone’s voice can be heard.
Furthermore, “Where people are working together on a task, it’s actually associated with higher levels of task enjoyment. This could have fascinating implications for employee morale in work settings. But there’s a catch. In order for conversation reciprocity to take place, the people collaborating on a task must make time to incorporate small talk into their work.”
The timing on this could not be better, given that employees are increasingly working in remote environments, a point amplified by Andrew Guydish, a Ph.D. student in cognitive psychology and lead author on this research.
“An average workday now is getting the team together into a virtual meeting, where there’s a very clear goal and task,” Guydish said. “You’re not talking to coworkers at their desk or in the hall. Everything is structured, and everything is essentially a task nowadays. So, this research highlights the importance of perhaps trying to institute moments throughout the day with unstructured chat time.”
The study’s authors suggest that it is “in those moments that reciprocity (can) work its magic. Typically, when peers are working together on a task that requires one to direct the other, it creates a natural imbalance in the conversation, where the person in the leadership role ends up doing most of the talking. But if the participants also have unstructured time available, the person leading the task-based conversation can use the opportunity to pull back on their contributions, essentially yielding air time during small talk to the other participant.”
That’s reciprocity, which ultimately leads to better decisions. And a more successful small business.