Thursday, August 29, 2013

What Can Anthropology Teach Managers?

What Evolutionary Psychology Can Teach Us about Managing People

by Darcy Hitchcock. Originally published in 1999 by AXIS Performance Advisors

In Biomimicry and Business, we explored how to apply nature's strategies in the design of organizations. But in addition to designing organizations so that they accommodate the limitations of nature, we should also operate our organizations so that they accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of human nature.

Masai art, courtesy africa,
What would it be like to make working as natural as walking, to create a workplace where people can be themselves and gain fulfillment by contributing their best gifts? In this issue, we'll explore how insights from evolutionary psychology can help us manage people.

In many ways, how we work in today's economy is unnatural. We are expected to work an eight-, ten- or twelve-hour shift, even though our energy levels wax and wane during the day. Some people even work graveyard when, according to the National Sleep Foundation, our bodies never adapt. In spite of having physiques designed for hunting and gathering, many sit in a cubicle all day often devoid of natural light, forced to do repetitive, small motion tasks. Work is isolated from the res t of our lives and our communities,separating people from family members for most of the day.

While our world has changed dramatically in the last few thousand years,our genetics have barely budged. So how would we work differently if we wanted to align our organizational practices with human nature? So let's go back to what humans evolved to do and see if we can adapt the workplace to those characteristics. (See the sidebar, The Nature of Humans.) In this article, I can only touch on some of the implications. Please share your insights as well.

The Nature of Humans

Evolutionary psychology informs us about human nature. According to Nigel Nicholson in the Harvard Business Review article, "How Hardwired Is Human Behavior?" (July-August 1998), it seems humans have, through their evolutionary experiences, evolved to:
  • Use emotions as the first screen for all information. (Remember the last time you got negative feedback on your performance appraisal.) So why do we expect organizations to act rationally?
  • Avoid risky situations when feeling secure but fight ferociously when threatened. (Think about how differently people act when the organization is doing fine financially versus when it is faced with layoffs.) So how do we get people to modify their behavior in response to intangible threats like global climate change?
  • Feel more self-confident than reality justifies. (Recall the Challenger Disaster or the stock market performance before the Great Depression.) So how can we get people to attend to real threats?
  • Quickly classify things. (Us-them, good-bad, business-government, customer-supplier). So how can we get people to understand complex interdependencies when they are already in information-overload?
  • Gossip (i.e., the grapevine). If gossip represents our preferred mode of communication, is it any wonder that, despite newsletters, bulletin boards and executive presentations, many employees complain about the lack of "communication"?
  • Feel most comfortable in communities with no more than 150 members. (Think about the enduring prevalence of small businesses, accounting for about 60% of all employment). So is it any wonder that employees in behemoth corporations feel disenfranchised?
  • Seek superiority or security in hierarchical systems. (Consider all the times we claim something requires the buy-in of top management.) Might this explain why matrix management and self-directed teams seem to be fragile structures?
  • Lead in different ways. (Entrepreneurs' businesses often outgrow their management style.) So how can we make sure we have the leaders to match our challenges?
  • Participate in public competitions, particularly true of men. (Hey, I didn't say this; Nicholson did. Remember your last sales contest, United Way Campaign or executive meeting.) Does this explain why so many women leave corporations to start their own businesses?

Tribal-sized Organizations

According to evolutionary psychology, people feel most comfortable in groups of up to 150 because we used to live in tribes which tended to break apart into bands when they reached a couple hundred people. And our ideal team size of 8-12 people approximates the size of extended families.

So how might we organize if we used family and tribe as a model for group size? Rather than exhorting the masses to identify with a behemoth corporation,teams and departments might be limited to about a dozen people and corporations could be divided into autonomous business units of approximately 150 people. ABB Asea Brown Boveri, a $30 billion electrical engineering company, is famous for prospering in this manner. Percy Barnevik, president and CEO,reconstructed the corporation into 1,300 individual businesses worldwide.

What keeps us from doing this? Often the barrier is technology. Manufacturing processes are often limited by the equipment. But recall the success of mini-steel mills, something many claimed was impossible. Perhaps if we made"tribalism" a product design goal, we could create machines that serve us instead of the other way around.
So consider these actions:
  • Divide larger organizations into independent business units.
  • If you can't do that, redesign your planning, measurement and reward systems around this scale.
  • If you are merging two companies, assess the fit of their tribal values. If they are quite different, the best success seems to come in keeping a hands-off relationship, as in the case of Disney's purchase of Miramax.
Matrix structures (including the "centers of excellence" promoted by reengineering devotees), which make people be members of more than one tribe, appear to be "unnatural" and are devilishly hard to manage. People tend to ignore one of the relationships. For example, one of our clients, an environmental agency, is organized around "media" (air, water, etc.) but the employees are exhorted to also be matrixed to geographic regions (a more logical structure for managing environmental problems.). Predictably, they tend only to pay attention to their functional/media tribe.

This is made worse when organizations try to present the two relationships as equal. In these situations, it may help to describe the relationships as concentric circles rather than equal bonds or hierarchical organization charts. For humans have long dealt with family-band-tribe-nation relationships rippling out. The "hierarchy" imposed by the concentric circles should represent objective reality (e.g., a watershed is larger than one river, and air quality must be managed on a regional basis because it blows beyond county boundaries) rather than some arbitrary structure imposed by management.

Vision Quests, not Mission Statements

If emotions are our first filter, why do organizations so often ignore the power of passion, vision, and affiliation. Mission statements posted on the wall and job descriptions don't come close to creating a sense of community or a passion to contribute.

At AXIS, we set aside one day each quarter to think. We call them DaVinci Days because they are intended to spark creativity. We frame a question,travel to a place of beauty and talk...about what we want, how we feel about what we have been doing, what we need to learn next. Sometimes we take other people with us. When do you give people at work time to speak from their hearts and integrate that new knowledge into the work you do? If emotions are the first filter, let's tap into them.

What might a corporate "vision quest" look like? Marvin Weisbord's "future search conferences" are one model where approximately60 carefully selected people spend two to three days reviewing their past,analyzing the present and imagining their future. If we organized into tribal sized groups, this process could easily involve most of the organization.

There are many other methods to tap into people's passion that take less time. You can stage mock press conferences or use guided visualization.The Corporate Mystic provides a personal visioning process using three people:a visioner, facilitator and scribe. After choosing a goal or problem, the facilitator asks the visioner to imagine success and then answer a series of questions including: What is it that makes this a success? What did other people learn of most value that allowed them to contribute? What were the course corrections that might have thrown you off?
Distilling some of the tips from many visioning processes yields this advice:
  • Schedule uninterrupted time for reflection
  • Build in quiet time for contemplation
  • Create a safe space to speak openly
  • Focus first on the future, what you want; imagine it with all your senses
  • Use a variety of methods to tap into people's creativity: drawing, skits, brainstorming, physical activities, etc.

Ceremony more than Communication

Think of all the meetings you have as ceremonies: the stockholders meeting,staff meetings, your performance appraisal. What's missing? The ceremony!Rituals integrate our emotions into a task. At work, where is it that we dance together, have rights of passage, recognize acts of bravery, appreciate our bounty, and honor our "elders"? Strong teams do many of these things. In most organizations, the closest we come to ceremony is the goldwatch after 30 years of service and donuts at mind-numbing staff meetings.Come on. We can do better.

Dancing together—-Dancing involves synchronizing ourselves with the movement of others, that glorious sense of being part of a community performing something beautiful and symbolic. Singing in a choir or playing team sports can have the same effect. Many cultures use drumming. It is a ritual of joy, exhilaration and connectedness.

How could we create similar experiences at work? You will need to find practices which fit your organization's culture. It might be a well-orchestrated client presentation, the annual departmental soccer match or the volunteer assembly line preparing gift boxes for the needy during the holidays. But plan something that, for an instant anyway, aligns all your spirits.

Rights of passage-Birth, coming of age,marriage, death. These are passages around which most cultures have elaborate ceremonies. Much of the joy of such ceremonies comes from the anticipation(preparing for the wedding), and from the repetition of rituals (so the parents relive their own wedding vows at their daughter's service). In society,each ceremony has its own unique rituals.
Yet at work, how do we handle the new hire's first day, a promotion,the completion of an important project, or the return of an injured worker?At worst, it's business as usual: oh-you-must-be-the-new-guy. At best, it's often lunch paid for by the boss, the same ritual regardless of the passage.

We need better, more meaningful rituals for each of our work passages. Atone client, we structured a welcoming "ceremony" that involved each person talking about what it was like to work in their high-performance environment--an act which meant as much to the old team members as the new.Projects could be capped off with a ritual of appreciation to thank the client. Perhaps promotions could be met with a tamer version of the bachelor's party.

Recognizing bravery- In our organizations we still hunt (for customers), go to war (with competitors), protect the tribe (against hostile take-overs) and withstand great pain (during lay-offs). Fortunately most managers have evolved past the that's-what-they-get-paid-for style of leadership. But we don't often make enough hoopla over our accomplishments.

I will never forget the day I came back to the office with a huge contract from Cadillac, turning around the dismal financial performance of my then employer. My employees had spent all morning stringing paper Cadillacs across the office. One proudly presented a pink Cadillac mug brimming with flowers.There were exuberant hugs and verbal applause.

We often talk about celebrating our successes but rarely reach this "high."What made this instance so memorable? The strength of emotions. What made this so effective? Like many ceremonies, it required preparation on the part of those who would participate.

So perhaps we shouldn't delegate the thankless task of planning the company picnic or holiday bash to just a few people. Instead, ask everyone to make some effort in the preparation: cook a dish, make a decoration, or tell a story.

Appreciating our bounty-Thankfulness is part of many tribal customs. The Iroquois had a ritual before beginning a meeting of systematically thanking everything in their universe: the sun,the moon, the rain, the bird, the fish. It served to "center"people and generate a certain reverence. Try recounting your blessings next time you are feeling down; it changes how you feel and see the situation.

Contrast this with our tendency in corporations to focus on what's wrong and to take for granted what is going right. For some the only acknowledgment of bounty is the stub on their profit sharing check, more of a pay-off than a celebration.

So try these techniques:
  • Start your team meetings publicly thanking members who have contributed or helped.
  • At least four times a year, take time out to talk together about your accomplishments, hopes and new goals (what we call a team improvement review).
  • At least once a year, plan a memorable, symbolic celebration that will keep people buzzing for months and be the source of legends. (See the Case Corner for an example.)
  • Investigate using appreciative inquiry instead of problem solving as a process for making improvements. This forces you to examine what has gone well and how to get more of that.
Honoring our "elders"-It is the elders who give us a connection to our past. They carry the stories, maintain the values, bring the wisdom of a long lifetime, and moderate the impulsiveness of youth.
In a corporate sense, "elders" may not necessarily be older,but rather be those with more longevity, wisdom, foresight, or skill. We take for granted that managers should give feedback to employees, but how often do managers get positive feedback from their employees? How often does the CEO hear words of appreciation? How often do we thank all our "teachers"?We have Secretary's Day but no Founder's Day. It sounds absurd even to suggest it. But what does it do to our leaders when we neglect to thank them for taking the lead? (Recall that some people are genetically predisposed not to.)

Case Corner: Designing a Memorable Ceremony

Vancouver Housing Authority wanted a symbolic event to kick off their implementation of a new corporate direction. We helped them design a one-day "big event" for all employees. After clarifying outcomes, we jointly developed startling ways to grab attention. These included a room-sized corporate time line (painted by local school kids) which the director, after busting out of a "time machine" in a wizards costume, used to pay tribute to their proud history. Teams/ departments developed skits to interpret the new direction; one group led us all in a raucous sing-along set to the YMCA song. We ceremoniously threw out unnecessary procedures into a trash can, and wrapped up the day by planting a garden at the county fair grounds. While many on the management team feared the "big event" might be considered corny, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Hunting, Gathering and Play

Did you know that the average "work day" for "primitive"tribes tends to be around 3 hours? This is the time it takes them to gather water, prepare food, provide shelter, etc. Much of the remaining time isspent talking, napping, playing. Gossip, also part of our evolutionary success strategies, was a practice which helped to hold the community together and track shifting power bases.
At first blush, the thought of dropping our workday down to this level seems unattainable, and perhaps it is. But it is instructive to remember that this is the work schedule we have evolved to live with. Think about the problems we create by violating this threshold: accidents, burnout,stress, childhood delinquency. We were never intended to sit in a cubicle all day long or work eight hours straight.

How might we adapt the working day, just a little, to these innate patterns? The Gymboree Corporation rings a bell at 3 PM each Thursday and declares recess. Their employees take walks and play four-square, a popular schoolyard game. You might want to try some of these suggestions:
  • Make time in staff meetings for something playful. (I know a facilitator who allows time for a "humor break" in each meeting where someone shares a joke, cartoon, etc.)
  • Provide enough variety of work tasks during the day to keep people fresh. Schedule the intense physical or mental work in two bursts during the workday, interspersed with more relaxed, even mindless, repetitive, hypnotic tasks.
  • Encourage playful, child-like behavior. Play tag in the parking lot during lunch to get the blood flowing again. Make playful items available: nerf balls or squirt guns.

Conflicts and Competition

Competition, also a part of human nature, usually is interwoven with ceremony. (Think about the Olympic Games.) But it is the ceremony that bounds it and keeps it safe. I have heard that in Argentina years past, two men who wanted to compete over a woman would gather in a public plaza and dance the tango -- together. (What an image!) An aboriginal woman from Australia told me that when two tribes came into conflict, they would battle, but the moment one person was injured or killed, the battle ended. Symbolic, safe, public, bounded.

Instead in our organizations, we let competition run rampant. Intentionally and unknowingly we use financial measures to pit divisions against one another, performance measures to pit shifts against each other and performance reviews to pit employees against each other.Competition isn't an event, it's become a milieu. And it eats away at the bonds that hold our tribe together.

Instead of keeping people at a constant state of fight-or-flight adrenaline rush, try to:
  • Give a competition a clear beginning and ending through campaigns and contests.
  • Develop methods that reduce the negative side effects of losing. For example, Honda chartered parallel teams to design a car where only one design would actually be built. But they went out of their way to applaud and integrate the innovations from the "losing" team, reintegrating them into the tribe. (Pascale, 1990)
  • Since men may be more disposed to competition, find other ways to motivate those women (and men) who prefer cooperation.

Council of Elders instead of a Boss

All primates have leaders and we are no exception. Some people seek superiority--tobe in control--and most share a tendency to look to our leaders for comfort and direction. Just like other primates, our leaders help us understand our place within the community (pecking order), define the community bounds(who's in and who's out), and most importantly provide direction, especially during a crisis. "Leaderless teams" are a figment of our imagination.A leader will emerge whether we want one to or not.

Where we run afoul in our organizations most often, though, is not that we expect no one to take the lead but rather that we expect one person to lead. According to evolutionary psychology, we lead in different ways.

To expect one leader to lead in all situations is a mistake, especially in today's complex business climate. So rather than associating leadership with a person or position, we should consider it a function. Ask, "Who is the best person to lead us through this task?" In the shared leadership of self-directed work teams, for example, leadership is assigned based on competence rather than a position.

Nicholson also claims that some people are programmed to follow, not to lead at all. This may explain why in self-directed teams, some members never take a leadership role. We can encourage them to get involved, but some may be predisposed not to assume a "star point" role, for example. And forcing them to is probably a mistake.

Many indigenous populations have a council of elders, one way of sharing leadership and balancing one another's weaknesses. From a practical point of view, our organizations have no such thing. The board of directors, aside from often being a patsy to the CEO, isn't much involved with the rest of the tribe. What if every department or team had its own council of elders,knowledgeable people to whom they could go for advice, support, comfort,direction, and occasionally, arbitration? Without this leadership, conflicts go on too long, issues don't get addressed, people feel disconnected, and the organization lacks direction.

So make sure the leader fits the situation:
  • Provide multiple leadership roles. (Star points, de Bono's six thinking hats, and the meeting roles in Mining Group Gold are all practical examples of this.)
  • Develop a team approach to managing. (When one of our clients redesigned their functional structure into cross functional teams, the functional supervisors each became a "process coach" to a particular team but became the "technical coach" in their areas of expertise for the whole department.)
  • Consider assigning a council of elders for every team or department.

Seeing the Whole, Our Greatest Challenge

For life in the 21st Century, our greatest weakness is our inability to perceive and react to complex, systemic problems. According to evolutionary psychology, we quickly classify things, under-estimate threats, and thenfight ferociously once the threat becomes apparent.

Classifying things reduces our ability to appreciate their complexities.For example, in our competitive culture, we interpret what we see through that lens. Watching National Geographic specials, I came to expect the African savanna to be rife with eat-or-be-eaten competitive behavior. So on a trip to Zimbabwe I was amazed to discover the bohemian lifestyle the animals lived. The vast majority of the time was focused around cooperation and synergy--termites cultivating their own food, a bee guide bird that leads humans to honey so it can eat the grubs, and the baboon warning the grazing zebra of the presence of lions--instead of Darwinian acts.

Once we classify something, we stop observing its true nature. So what? Remember when "Made in Japan" equated to junk? We leave ourselves open to being blind-sided when we simplify something to cram it into a mental box.

So how might we keep seeing what's real instead of our reality redux? Use processes which force us to view the world with new eyes. For example,bring in naive outsiders when you analyze your
processes. Consider the diversity of thinking when you form a team or hire people. Read publications that promote different world views, especially ones you disagree with. Challenge your own assumptions.

Evolutionary psychology also indicates that we underestimate risks. This is especially true of discontinuous events. Recall the Kobe earthquake or Harry Truman now buried under mountains of ash on Mt. St. Helens. Before the big eruption, I too discounted scientists warnings of a cataclysmic event. So how do we get our Pollyanna brains to be more realistic in our assessments?
  • Identify important factors which are subject to the "boiled frog" phenomenon (where the frog doesn't notice the water is getting hotter), especially those with positive feedback cycles and long lead times. For example, global climate change may lead to more forest fires which will lead to more CO2 in the atmosphere which will lead to more climate change (a positive feedback loop). CFC's will continue to destroy ozone for decades after we stop emitting them (a long lead time). Track these factors and take seriously any minor changes in trends.
  • Also, identify discontinuous processes which like a pendulum can reverse course or like a volcano can erupt. Monitor these as well.
  • Use scenario planning to identify strategies to deal with these potentialities. Get everyone in the organization involved in scanning the horizon. (For one easy method, see the clipping process in Flight of the Buffalo.)
  • In meetings, assign a devil's advocate role or use de Bono's "black hat" liberally.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing to remember about human nature is our tendency to avoid risk when we're comfortable but then overreact fiercely when threatened. Your ability to operate a business is dependent upon the existence of a civilized society. Sarajevo and Kosovo are but recent reminders of how tenuous that can be.
  • So watch for boiling points where citizens or employees are denied their basic rights and needs through politics, famine, work practices, or other injustice. Use your influence to turn the situation around.
  • Be sensitive to cultural differences so you don't precipitate a backlash by assuming the American Way is the right way.
  • Use SA 8000 or some other framework for assessing the social responsibility of global operations. (See Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency (CEPAA) at
  • On a smaller scale, use empowerment, teams and open book management as a way to help people see how they fit into the big picture and get more control over their lives.

Think of the potential benefits of "natural work." By tapping into emotions and employing more meaningful rituals, we can gain a more committed workforce. If we keep our organizations down to 150 employees,we may gain stronger loyalty. By aligning work to our natural rhythms we should reduce mistakes and accidents. If we confer leadership based on the requirements of the situation, we should get better decisions. It is far easier to adapt our workplace to human nature than expect human nature to adapt to it.


de Bono, Edward (1986) Six Thinking Hats. Little Brown & Co.
Diamond, Jared (2011) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books
Hendricks, Gay and Kate Ludeman (1996). The Corporate Mystic. BantamBooks.
Kohn, Alfie (1986). No Contest: The Case Against Competition. HoughtonMifflin.
Mander, Jerry and Edward Goldsmith (eds) (1996). The Case Against the Global Economy and a Turn toward the Local. Sierra Club Books.
Michalko, Michael (1991) Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity for the 90's. Ten Speed Press.
Nicholson, Nigel. "How Hardwired is Human Behavior?" Harvard Business Review (July/August 1998) pp. 135-147.
Pascale, Richard Tanner (1990). Managing on the Edge: How the Smartest Companies Use Conflict to Stay Ahead. Simon & Schuster.
Schwartz, Peter (1991). The Art of the Long View. NY: Doubleday Currency (on scenario planning)
Trompenaars, Fons (1994) Riding the Waves of Culture: Irwin.

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