Trapped in an evolutionary time-warp: how human genetics sabotage modern organisations
“Thus, the task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.”
Arthur Schopenhauer: 1851
Modern organisations are a human creation. This design is anchored by genetics and has prevailed for thousands of years. People are hard-wired to perpetuate it, even though the design is now substantially dysfunctional. Evolutionary psychology explains why.
This paper describes why organisations are the way they are, using a somewhat unconventional lens. Subsequent articles will offer a solution.
The wisdom of the elders
Humans have two forms of generalised intelligence, a product of genetics: ‘fluid intelligence’ and ‘crystallised intelligence’. ‘Fluid intelligence’ is the capacity to learn; ‘crystallised intelligence’ is the capacity to know and recall. The relative proportions of each are not static. The young have high levels of fluid intelligence and limited crystallised intelligence. As people age, the proportions reverse. So, the elderly have lots of crystallised intelligence and limited fluid intelligence.
The human species has evolved this way for good reason. It is the role of the young to learn from their elders; it is the role of the elders to impart knowledge to the young. Hence older people have an ingrained belief in their right to impart knowledge; and younger people have a natural and societal deference to their seniors.
This hard-wired characteristic has kept society safe for 90,000 years. After all, for any young person who wishes to live as long as their elders, it will pay them to learn what survival knowledge those elders have to teach. In such an environment, new ideas or ideas that run contrary to conventional wisdom are unwelcome and frequently punished. Yet, paradoxically, the ‘wisdom of the elders’ (or, at least, the relevance of that wisdom) is predicated upon the environment in which those elders learned their wisdom being the same environment when they impart it. In other words, our hard-wired respect for the elderly and for seniority is based upon the external environment being stable over time. Yet, less-and-less, is this the case.
Human motives, organisational role choices and language
Humans have three unconscious motives. Originating in the formative years, they are enduring genetically-programmed strategies for getting out of childhood alive. Any person has all three, though one is preferred over the other two. These three are …
- Need for affiliation. This is a social need, the desire to be included, the desire not to be rejected and left behind.
- Need for achievement, the desire to make a difference based on individual effort, to seek feedback on progress and to persevere towards a long-term goal.
- Need for power, the desire for status, prestige and influence over others.
In adulthood, these motives influence the societal roles that people prefer and subsequent occupational choices.
Those with a need for affiliation prefer helping and supporting roles. For them, their workplace is their social club. They commonly occupy the administrative and support ranks.
Those with a need for achievement prefer making a difference through individual effort, thereby commonly placing them in the technical/professional middle of the organisation.
Those with a need for power like to influence and direct others. They tend to gravitate naturally towards leadership, managerial or executive roles.
The result of these aggregated preferences is an organisation split into three ‘tribes’.
Considering language within organisations, imagine a person in the hierarchy who has both subordinates and seniors. If this person is seeking approval of any sort, it is likely to come from above. Access to approval is commonly gained by ‘asking’. Imagine this same person who requires subordinates to carry out a task. This is more likely to be conveyed by ‘telling’.
So it is throughout the hierarchy. People tend to ask upwards and to tell downwards. This is entirely consistent with (a) the wisdom of the elders, and (b) fluid and crystallised intelligence. These are the hardwired patterns of communication. Those with a need for power, those who are more likely to occupy the managerial and executive ranks, show a tendency not to ask questions. And it is this very tendency that renders organisations vulnerable to failure. [To check the veracity of this tendency, keep a tally count of questions and statements at your next management or executive meeting.]
Refer back to the ‘three-bump’ diagram and consider which of the three roles is most frequently in the field, talking to customers, perceiving opportunities, and sensing threats. It is the technical/professional middle. Yet, the patterns of communication inhibit information flowing upwards. After all, management is expecting questions, not statement, from below. And every level in the hierarchy serves as a filter to information flowing in either direction. Rapid authenticity of information upwards tends to be suppressed.
Further, research has repeatedly demonstrated that need for power is inversely correlated with creativity, and that when a team is led by people with a high need for power, members of that team are more inclined to suppress their own creative sparks.
Primates, in a group, exhibit two distinct forms of behaviour. They know how to function co-operatively and non-hierarchically; they also know how to function competitively and hierarchically.
A troupe of monkeys, seeking food, will wander widely across the forest floor, yet remaining within hearing distance of each other (being greater than visual distance). Should one animal find food, it calls to its colleagues to share, after which they disperse and continue to forage. Finding of food is random and hierarchy/leadership is unnecessary. However, should they come across an abundance of food, such as tree in fruit, their behaviour changes. The ‘alpha male’ takes charge and the rest of the troupe fall into their relative pecking order. ‘Beta males’, those who are subservient to the ‘alpha’, are allowed to be close to their leader. Any males perceived not to be subservient, known as ‘omegas’, are beaten up.
Note the trigger for these two forms of behaviour is resource centrality or randomness. Also note that the fruit-laden tree does not require hierarchy. Yet this is what occurs. Why?
Females prefer their offspring to be strong and socially successful. Where possible, they will mate with a male further up the pecking order in order to gain stronger genes. So males create hierarchy, whenever possible, in order to showcase, to females, their desirability as mating partners.
And the drive to do this is unconscious.
Human beings are no different to other primates in this regard. Humans create organisations that have (a) centralised resources that are limited and contestable, and (b) hierarchically distinct social structures. Those with a need for power tend to gravitate to the upper ranks, issue directives, convince themselves of the value of their ideas while blocking good ideas from below.
Because rewards flow from above, attention within organisations is substantially directed upwards rather than outward. Further, since resources are limited and contestable, horizontal collaboration tends to be unrewarded. Not surprisingly, potential co-operation is replaced by competition and distrust.
As described earlier, the wisdom of the elders is predicated upon the environment in which they acquired their knowledge as children and young adults being the same stable environment that their juniors occupy. Today, turbulent environments are the norm, rendering less relevant the knowledge the elders believe they possess. [For example, the half-life of the professional knowledge of an engineering graduate is less than three years.]
Humans have always influenced each other. Consider the following attributes, asking which, within each pair, is more frequently influential in public settings.
People acknowledge that one descriptor in each pair is more likely to be influential. Whenever a group of people gather in conversation, one or more of these influences unconsciously sways the direction and outcomes. Yet it is obvious that none of these characteristics has any necessary relationship today to wisdom or good ideas, despite our being captive to these influences.
The third watershed in human evolution
In the wild, most animals survive by instinct alone. And so it used to be with the first humans.
What enabled our ongoing survival as the dominant species on the planet was what is sometimes called the first watershed, when the wisdom of the elders was added to instinct as the survival kit. Hierarchy had begun.
The second watershed gradually occurred within the last century or less, when the turbulent external environment began to undermine the wisdom of the elders. Contemporary solutions needed to be found. Yet the old hierarchical structures remained.
It could be argued we are now at the point of the third watershed. Instinct is insufficient; wisdom of the elders is insufficient, and even contemporary solutions are proving inadequate for some of the ‘wicked problems’ confronting organisations and the planet.
Like monkeys foraging widely across the forest floor, solutions are likely to grow from ideas that are random; ideas that can be rapidly harnessed, assessed and acted upon. And the paradox is that the third watershed is precisely what hierarchy is designed to block.
Guests in hotels, worldwide, will notice within each bathroom a notice pertaining to bath towels. Guests who are staying several days are requested to place their towel in the bath if they wish it to be replaced; otherwise they are requested to hang it on the towel rail. Prior to this idea being promulgated, towels were being washed and replaced daily. This new suggestion saved the hospitality industry a small fortune in laundry costs.
So where did this idea come from? It was offered by a housemaid at a workshop being held by a major hotel chain; the idea did not come from management.
Now this story has gained considerable traction in the management literature. What is remarkable about this story is not that the idea came from a housemaid. What is remarkable is that the story gained any traction at all. In the world of the third watershed, where ideas are random, this is exactly the scenario to be expected. Yet the telling of the story is testament to this source of ideas being regarded as unusual. It is a second watershed story.
If hierarchy has a tendency to block ideas, then the towel story suggests the solution. The hotel chain created a temporary opportunity for random ideas from any source to be appreciated and implemented by those in power. In order to capture the best ideas, hierarchy was suspended.
Every organisation has the same potential. Employers hire staff for their knowledge and skill; rarely for their new ideas. Yet every employee is networked in their broader life. Their potential source of insights is huge. All an organisation needs to do is to create an environment where ideas from any source are encouraged, recognised and acted upon. In such an environment, employees will willingly contribute.
Considering the unconscious sources of influence (taller, deep-voiced, etc), our conversations are more likely to be productive if all of those irrelevant influences can be held at bay. This can be done by reconstructing how we conduct our workplace conversations. Suddenly the potential of every employee is available. Innovations begin to flow, morale goes up, along with retention and engagement. Workplaces become joyful.
Ian Plowman, PhD
31st May 2018.
Author: Ian Plowman is a consultant, facilitator and social researcher with over 30 years’ experience as an organisational psychologist. He works with individuals, organizations, industries, communities and government agencies. He holds a Doctorate in Management (researching blockages to innovation), an Advanced Master’s Degree in Business Administration, a Master’s Degree in Organizational Psychology and an Honours Degree in Clinical Psychology. Ian helps clients to develop skills and awareness to remove blockages and raise their levels of creativity and innovation.
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