Are we humans perfectly fitted to the modern business world? An evolutionary perspective suggests this may not be the case. An important concept in evolutionary theory is mismatch. Mismatch occurs when the environment that organisms are adapted to, via a long process of evolution by natural selection, changes so quickly and intensely that it hinders them to fulfil their reproductive goals. A mismatch example from nature is human-caused deforestation which has changed the habitats of many species so profoundly that they are no longer able to thrive or even survive in these altered environments. Yet mismatch is equally important to describe human brains and bodies.

More than 99% of human evolution took place within small scale societies – egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups of 50-150 individuals that roamed the savannahs looking for food and safety. These were societies without laws, institutions, and complex technology. Behaviors were guided by habits, cultural norms, and informal leaders. Only since the agricultural revolution that took place some 10,000 years ago – the last 1% of human evolution – did our societies grow in scale and complexity. The Industrial Revolution that paved way for the modern business environment is even more recent (dating back only about 250 years ago). It produced multi-layered decision-making hierarchies, formal rules of conduct, and a sharp separation between one’s private and work life – conditions unknown to our ancestors. We are currently in the digital age causing many novel mismatch problems. In the small-scale societies where humans evolved trust and cooperation were established on the basis of frequent face-to-face interactions.

Yet these interactions are increasingly lacking as remote workplace arrangements have become the norm. Small-scale societies have no formal leaders and the status and power differences between individuals were minimal. Yet modern organizations have CEO’s and middle managers in place who in principle can control all aspects of your working life. The result is the risk of job alienation and power abuse. Finally, job stress and burnout result from prolonged exposure to stressors that our immune system is poorly adapted to cope with.

The current appeal of boss-less organizations may be more than just a fad; instead it probably reflects a deeper desire for the organizational structures of the past.

So, what to do about business mismatch? First, we should acknowledge that our evolved small scale psychology poses constraints on the way we structure modern workplaces. Second, we should design organizations in such a way that they either work with, or if this is impossible, work around our small-scale psychology.

Thus, work environments must offer plenty of room for physical movement and informal socializing. Leaders must operate with prestige and authority rather than coercion. The current appeal of boss-less organizations may be more than just a fad; instead it probably reflects a deeper desire for the organizational structures of the past.

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Published On: January 4, 2018

Mark van Vugt

Mark van Vugt

Mark van Vugt is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Work and Organizational Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands and a Research Associate at the  University of Oxford, England. He studies and teaches about group and organizational behavior from an evolutionary psychology perspective. His main research themes include leadership, hierarchy, altruism, cooperation, and intergroup relations and he is the co-director of the Amsterdam Leadership Lab. Mark also has a keen interest in applications of evolutionary perspectives to such topics as management, governance, economics, sustainability, philanthropy, war and peace. He has published more than 150 articles in prestigious journals such as Nature, Current Biology, Proceedings of the Royal Society-B, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist, Academy of Management Review.  He is a former Associate Editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and is currently serving at the Leadership Quarterly. He has authored and co-authored various books including “Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership and, recently, Mismatch. Mark van Vugt has received research grants from national and international funding agencies including the European Union, the British Academy, NWO, from government and industry. He is a newspaper columnist and a blogger for Psychology Today on topics related to human behavior in the work place.
Twitter: @markvanvugt1



  • David Milgrim says:

    Thanks for this, Mark. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot and wonder if there is a more in-depth discussion of this somewhere. I think that, simply put, mismatch is the source of most of our problems and suffering. I’d love to read or discuss ideas about what a safe, sustainable, and satisfying culture might look like. One that is based on achieving a better “match” in and out of work.

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