They will see this as empty rhetoric; in fact, instinct will tell them that making mistakes involves loss possibly of their jobs. Sadly, evolutionary psychology brings this managerial quandary to the surface but cannot solve it. Effective managers need to be adept at the very difficult task of framing challenges in a way that neither threatens nor tranquilizes employees.
Confidence Before Realism. In the unpredictable and often terrifying conditions of the Stone Age, those who survived surely were those who believed they would survive. Their confidence strengthened and emboldened them, attracted allies, and brought them resources. In addition, people who appeared self-confident were more attractive as mates—they looked as if they were hardy enough to survive and prosper.
Thus, people who radiated confidence were those who ended up with the best chances of passing on their genes. The legacy of this dynamic is that human beings put confidence before realism and work hard to shield themselves from any evidence that would undermine their mind games. Countless management books have been written extolling the virtues of confidence; they cleverly feed right into human nature. Given their biogenetic destiny, people are driven to feel good about themselves.
But if you operate on a high-octane confidence elixir, you run into several dangers. You neglect, for instance, to see important clues about impending disasters. You may forge into hopeless business situations, assuming you have the right stuff to fix them. The truth is, even with self-confidence we cannot control the world. Some events are random. Or ask any young M. Perhaps that it makes sense sometimes to challenge human nature and ask questions such as, Am I being overly optimistic? Yes, you can train people, teach them about different ideas, and exhort them to change their attitudes.
But evolutionary psychology asserts that there is a limit to how much the human mind can be remolded. The theory of evolutionar y psychology is complex, and its implications equally so. But below is a summary of some points that evolutionary psychologists would make to managers tr ying to understand human behavior. Classification Before Calculus. The world of hunter-gatherers was complex and constantly presented new predicaments for humans.
Which berries can be eaten without risk of death? Where is good hunting to be found? What kind of body language indicates that a person cannot be trusted? In order to make sense of a complicated universe, human beings developed prodigious capabilities for sorting and classifying information. In fact, researchers have found that some nonliterate tribes still in existence today have complete taxonomic knowledge of their environment in terms of animal habits and plant life.
They have systematized their vast and complex world. In the Stone Age, such capabilities were not limited to the natural environment. To prosper in the clan, human beings had to become expert at making judicious alliances. They had to know whom to share food with, for instance—someone who would return the favor when the time came. They had to know what untrustworthy individuals generally looked like, too, because it would be foolish to deal with them.
Thus, human beings became hardwired to stereotype people based on very small pieces of evidence, mainly their looks and a few readily apparent behaviors. Whether it was sorting berries or people, both worked to the same end. Classification made life simpler and saved time and energy. Your classification system told you instantly. Every time a new group came into view, you could pick out the high-status members not to alienate.
And the faster you made decisions like these, the more likely you were to survive. Sitting around doing calculus—that is, analyzing options and next steps—was not a recipe for a long and fertile life. And so classification before calculus remains with us today. People naturally sort others into in-groups and out-groups—just by their looks and actions. In fact, research has shown that managers sort their employees into winners and losers as early as three weeks after starting to work with them. People are complex and many sided. But it is illuminating to know that we are actually programmed not to see them that way.
This perhaps helps to explain why, despite the best efforts of managers, some groups within organizations find it hard to mix. The battle between marketing and manufacturing is as old as—well, as old as marketing and manufacturing. The techies of IT departments often seem to have difficulty getting along with the groups they are supposed to support, and vice versa. Everyone is too busy labeling others as outsiders and dismissing them in the process. A final point must be made on the matter of classification before calculus, and it comes in the area of skill development.
Lists are attractive and often memorable. But advanced math and science education largely relies on sophisticated models of processes—complex explanations of cause and effect in different circumstances. It also advocates probabilistic ways of thinking, in which people are taught to weigh the combined likelihoods of different events together as they make decisions.
Many people may come to understand and use these methods—weather forecasters and investment analysts are examples—but even lengthy training cannot fully eliminate our irrational and simplifying biases. Along with a scarcity of food, clothing, and shelter, and the constant threat of natural disaster, the Stone Age was also characterized by an ever-shifting social scene. From one season to the next, it was not easy to predict who would have food to eat, let alone who would be healthy enough to endure the elements. In other words, the individuals who ruled the clan and controlled the resources were always changing.
Survivors were those who were savvy enough to anticipate power shifts and swiftly adjust for them, as well as those who could manipulate them.
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They were savvy because they engaged in, and likely showed a skill for, gossip. That has always been true in human society. The people who chat with just the right people at just the right time often put themselves in just the right position. In fact, it is fair to assume that human beings have stayed alive and increased their chances of reproducing because of such artful politicking. What are the implications for managers? And since the interest in rumors is ingrained into human nature, it makes little sense to try to eliminate such interest by increasing the flood of official communications.
Rather, managers would be smart to keep tabs on the rumor mill. They might even use their own networks to plug into the grapevine. But when it comes to gossip, it may be that managing by wandering about is the most effective way to communicate, as long as it is performed in a climate of trust and openness. Empathy and Mind Reading. Simply stated, these two skills are the building blocks of gossip.
People are much more likely to hear secrets and other information if they appear trustworthy and sympathetic. Likewise, people with a knack for guessing what others are thinking tend to ask better—that is, more probing and leading—questions. Thus, because empathy and mind reading abet the survival skill of gossip, they too became hardwired into the human brain.
At the same time, people are also programmed for friendliness.
Sharing food was the basis for the cooperative exchange with relative strangers in the hunter-gatherer clan. Human beings, or at least those who survived, became adept at building peaceful social alliances and carrying out negotiations with win-win outcomes. We can see barter and trade even among very young children at play. And so it is that friendly exchanges of information and favors remain our preferred way of dealing with nonfamily and a key to building political alliances for social success. The good news for managers on this front is that empathy and friendliness are, in general, positive dynamics to have around the organization.
It pays to empathize with customers, for instance, and we can assume that things like commitment and loyalty grow when employees are friendly to one another. The bad news is that the instinct for empathy very easily leads us to imagine that people are more similar to ourselves, as well as more competent and trustworthy, than they really are. Further, the drive to act friendly can make delivering bad news—about performance, for instance—very difficult.
The employment interview is one situation that exploits the capacities for friendliness and imaginative empathy to its fullest extent. Our natural tendency to sympathize with the person across the table drives us to make excuses for their weaknesses or to read more substance into their work or personal experiences than truly exists. At the same time, our programming for classification—sorting people into in-groups and out-groups—can make us harshly judge those who appear to be in the out-group. We will even focus on and exaggerate the differences we perceive. Thus, strict controls and lengthy training are needed to make interviews effective procedures for objective judgment, and even then they remain highly vulnerable to empathy and mind-reading biases.
Contest and Display. Finally, status in tribal groups was often won in public competitions. Such competitions were not introduced by human beings; indeed, they were dramas commonly played out by primates. To establish status in early human societies, people especially males frequently set up contests, such as games and battles, with clear winners and losers.
Likewise, they displayed their status and mental gifts in elaborate public rituals and artistic displays. The underlying purpose of such practices was to impress others. Successful—that is, high-status—and healthy males were thought to produce strong and intelligent progeny. For survival-driven females, determined not only to reproduce but to nurture their babies once they arrived, such males were…well, irresistible.
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For their part, women found contests amongst themselves unnecessary, although they did seek to be more attractive than one another so they could have the prime pick of high-status males. And so the ingrained male desire to do public battle and display virility and competence persists today. That should not surprise any denizen of the corporate world.
Men are forever setting up contests between themselves to see who will be promoted, win a new account, or gain the ear of leaders. Winners of these contests are frequently given to public displays of chest thumping. And even in organizational settings, which would benefit from cooperation, men frequently choose competition. The answer is sensitive territory, because it gets into the inborn differences between men and women and what that means for managers.
Some heralded the concept of the so-called Mommy Track—a term not coined by Schwartz, by the way—but many feminists excoriated her work. Suffice it to say, then, that managers should be aware that you can urge men to refrain from one-upmanship, but you may be fighting their programming. In addition, companies might ask themselves if their rules of success were written by men and for men. It might be that the reason most women are not breaking the glass ceiling is because they find those rules abhorrent—or at the very least, against their nature.
When all is said and done, evolutionary psychology paints a rather illuminating picture of human thinking and feeling. We may wish human beings were more rational, but our brains, created for a different time and place, get in the way. But the truth is, today we need rationality more than ever. The world is increasingly complex, and we must make harder, more layered decisions faster and faster. Of course, people have devised wonderful instruments to help predict and manage uncertainty. On modern trading floors, for example, computer modeling is widely used to estimate risks and probabilities in an unbiased fashion.
Traders and managers collectively pore over risk-bearing market positions to limit financial exposure. Reward and punishment systems encourage openness about loss and heavily penalize concealment. Responsibility for different elements of trading deals is divided across functions to prevent an individual from committing fraud. But even with these controls and safeguards, it is a sure thing that enormous costs are still being incurred through the exercise of human irrationality in these and other complex information-based environments.
Evolutionary psychologists contend, however, that our primitive psychorationality, so well adapted to the precarious life of hunter-gatherers, will continue to call the tune whenever it is free to do so. In the choices businesspeople make, one can expect the hidden agendas of emotion, loss aversion, over-confidence, categorical thinking, and social intuition to continue regularly to prevail. Evolutionary psychology thus suggests how important it is for us to have a clear view of our biased natures so that we can construct a mind-set to guard against their worst consequences.
Along with the workings of the human mind, evolutionary psychology also explores the dynamics of the human group. How does natural selection explain the ways in which people organize? What aspects of social behavior can be explained by our evolved circuitry? To identify our programming for social living, scientists in the field of evolutionary psychology have looked for common features across human societies, past and present, and extrapolated from them what must be biogenetic. The concept of coevolution is critical to this method of analysis—the idea that cultures and social institutions are adaptations that make compromises between environmental conditions, such as food supply and population density, and the enduring characteristics of human psychology.
So, as comparative anthropologists have pointed out, when one looks across the astonishing variety of human societies, one repeatedly encounters common themes, dilemmas, and conflicts. These common factors are inborn and drive many aspects of social relations today. Organizational Design. Like the primates that came before them, human beings were never loners. Indeed, the family is the centerpiece of all human societies. But no family would have survived the Stone Age without additional support. Clans on the Savannah Plain appear to have been similar in one key way: they contained up to members, according to Robin Dunbar, professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool.
In his research, Dunbar found a linear relationship between the brain size and troup size of social primates. The larger the brain, the larger the size of the group. Now, it may appear that other species have groups larger than members. We see thousands of moose together, for instance. But these are not clans in the way people configure or experience them. There is no binding connection or social organization among moose.
They simply gather into mating groups—a single male with his many female mates and their offspring. Human beings organize socially. They are held together by the bond of communities, although maintaining such communities is a complex matter. It involves a lot of brain power—remembering people, forging alliances, and keeping promises are all advanced mental tasks. It may very well be for this reason that we see the persistent strength of small to midsize family businesses throughout history. Family-owned companies account for a great deal of big business, too, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
And in the West, many major companies are underpinned by substantial interlocking family networks. Of course, many companies today employ more than people. And many of these businesses struggle with the tendency of people to break off into cliques, or of functions, departments, or even teams to come into conflict with one another. In recent years, many companies have sought to deal with this complexity through matrix management. Yet it has proved to be one of the most difficult and least successful organizational forms.
The reason? Evolutionary psychologists contend that matrix forms are inherently unstable due to the conflicting pulls toward too many centers of gravity. People are instinctively drawn toward commitment to one community at a time, usually the one that is closer and more familiar to them. Thus, when a modern businessperson is asked to report both to her regional boss and to a product manager, she is typically drawn to the regional boss because he is physically closer to where the employee works and to what she knows best.
The dual loyalties required by matrix management are difficult to sustain in the long term. It is no surprise, then, that the matrix has worked best where it has been limited in size and duration and where it has been directed toward the common end of a finite project—like a temporary assembly of a section of the hunter-gatherer clan for some major undertaking such as a game drive.
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Two notable examples are ABB, the multinational based in Sweden, which has become a world-beater by this means, and Virgin, which, especially in its early days, cultivated a climate of subunit entrepreneurship and self-management. ABB has around 1, units, each with an average of 50 people. Virgin allowed no more than 50 employees at any one site during its early years of phenomenal growth and success.
We return again to the relationship between the sexes. The hunter-gatherer world was certainly more fluid than ours is today in that wealth—represented by food, clothing, and shelter—was less predictable. Still, we can assume that some people regularly did better than others and thereby accrued status. When it came time to make alliances, they were sought out, and when it came time to pick leaders, they were chosen.
Wealth mattered in the social relations of Stone Age people, but probably no more than another status symbol—reproductive quality. Females came to believe that dominant males produced stronger babies more likely to survive the elements. Males sought females who appeared healthy and fertile.
By now, you might be wondering, What does this mean for managers? The answer is that the desire to obtain status in organizational settings is human nature. When we try to eliminate it through de-layering, or more radically in experimental communities such as the kibbutz, the human instinct for status differentiation reasserts itself. Even in small temporary groupings of equals, such as training events that bring together strangers from different companies, the beginnings of hierarchy can be glimpsed immediately in patterns of informal leadership and deferential behavior.
What we are seeing is the acting out of roles as ancient as our time on the planet. By all means, status and hierarchy should be managed in a fluid and flexible way, and all companies know by now to avoid excessively long chains of command. But managers would do well to recognize and reward employees through status recognition. Taken together, the research of evolutionary psychology on group size and hierarchy helps a manager to think anew about teams.
Indeed, managers should try to keep teams, such as work groups and committees, to manageable family-size proportions of up to Moreover, managers should probably not try to run teams as strict democracies. They should build a common set of purposes by maintaining an egalitarian ethos of sharing and equal rights but expect and allow informal leadership roles to operate. For the more conventional organization of modern times, we encounter the contradictions so masterfully satirized by the Dilbert cartoon strip—employees who are cynical about empowerment and mistrustful of de-layering because they recognize that traditional power and hidden hierarchy are alive and well and in control of their destinies.
The Dilbert characters seem to know what any evolutionary psychologist would tell you: hierarchy is forever. The truth is that leaders are born, not made. They are not clones, but all of them share one special personality trait: a passion to lead. As noted at the outset of this article, evolutionary psychology does not dispute individual differences. Indeed, an increasingly robust body of studies on twins conducted by behavioral geneticists indicates that people are born with set predispositions that harden as they age into adulthood.
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