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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.

www.professormarkvanvugt.com
Twitter: @markvanvugt1

 

5 Comments

  • 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.

  • Toni says:

    Is it possible that the last few hundred years are what we should call a fad? Considering the timescales, that is.

  • Fortunato Alfredo Ascioti says:

    I think that the outstanding pivotal work of Nobel Laureate Eleonore Ostrom on self-organized/self-regulated communities should indicate the right way to follow. We have inherited a genuine sense of cooperation that “modern” life and the current Pareto-optimal fast-and-furious economic “progress” view tend to destroy. This recalls me of Charlie Chaplin’s movie Modern Times. We should get out of this tricky loop or “the progress” will mean only the progressive alienation of our best human traits along with the total destruction of the planet that is hosting us.

  • Gavin Bartlett says:

    Thank you for this enlightening read and all the others that your organisation is sharing with us. All of it vital insights, in my opinion. It has long been my conviction that Dunbar’s Number is one of the most critical aspects of human societies that is singularly lacking in our considerations of sociology and our social structures. For me, it is mind-boggling that the only significant studies into its significance that I can find, relate only to how it operates in electronic social media networks. That it is a basic, genetically determined cognitive limit to our species optimum, stable group size is totally overlooked in civilised social structures. I would strongly recommend that anyone who isn’t aware of or who doesn’t know what it signifies, should do some research and ponder its significance for an evolutionary primate species. Named after the biologist, Robin Dunbar, who estimated it at 145 individuals, it correlates perfectly with the observed 50 – 150 individuals of past and present hunter-gatherer groups. An interesting modern example can be found in the highly innovative and successful W.L. Gore and Associates business organisation, as well as in infantry company structures, and Hutterite communities, among others. Allied to this phenomenon is that of people cooperating far more effectively in groups of individuals numbering 3 – 5 individuals, which is also ubiquitously observed in larger social gatherings, like cocktail parties where conversational groups don’t exceed 5 individuals, when they tend to split 2-3 to form separate groups, the most stable being 4 individuals – strongly suggesting to me that nuclear families and project teams/work groups should also follow this pattern. It is also reflected in military organisations in the 4 member infantry squad or fire team. The latter are also grouped in fours to form sections, with there being also four sections in the platoon and four platoons in an infantry company. The latter organisation ensures that at each leadership level, there are four individuals involved. It is significant to note that the company (nominally 145 – 150 troops, NCOs and officers) is the smallest possible unit capable of stable, sustainable independent command. Moreover, demographically this number also correlates with the tribe, and hamlet or village. In human societies, such groups can grow significantly larger and not lose coherence, but 200 appears to be about the limit. This allows for the maturing and development of ‘daughter’ groups of about 50 individuals that can split off viably from the ‘mother’ group’ or community in a sort of social mitosis effect to accommodate population increases. This may be why we observe hunter-gatherer groups numbering 50 t0 150 individuals in the main. If these factors are indeed cognitive limits then surely there can be little wonder at the inherent instability observed in civilised societies as they are now structured, especially in our ever growing mega cities?

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