As Managing Director of the consulting firm Hardwired Humans, Andrew O’Keeffe is part of a new breed of consultant who draws upon evolutionary theory to help businesses manage change. The author of Hardwired Humans and The Boss shares his perspective in his TVOL article titled “It’s Smarter to Work with Human Nature in Leading Change“. In this conversation, Max Beilby and Andrew take a deep dive into how “This View of Life” can provide a toolkit for survival and adaptation to change in challenging business environments.
Max Beilby: Welcome Andrew, and thank you for agreeing to this interview. To start, please may you tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to view business management from an evolutionary perspective?
Andrew O’Keeffe: I had a Eureka moment 17 years, 2 months, 1 week and 7 hours ago! My career to that point had been in industrial relations in mining and manufacturing and then in HR roles in IBM and Cable & Wireless. With that range of experiences I was seeing and hearing patterns of behavior repeated from one setting to another, but no leadership framework was explaining to my satisfaction all that I was observing. The behaviors I am talking about are the ones that tend to be frustrating to organizational performance. There was an echo around the executive table that I’d heard before: “We have a lot of silo behaviour in our organisation,” “Change is hard to implement,” “You wouldn’t believe the power of the gossip grapevine,” “Our managers need to be better at having the tough conversations” (not that the executive members were any better). I was curious about this. Then I read the Harvard Business Review article by Nigel Nicholson (I must have read it a couple of years after its 1998 publication because I can remember the desk where I was sitting when I read it). Suddenly everything was explained; the behavior that served us well through the long journey of human history is alive and well in today’s workplaces!
Max: What was your first application of evolutional psychology?
Andrew: We designed a performance appraisal system fit for humans. With the HR team I led at the time, we had a conversation that this framework explains one of the puzzles of HR practice. On the one hand, “This explains why a species like ours would invent a performance appraisal system”. On the other, “It explains why they don’t work so well and anyone who has one is always redesigning it just one more time!” We then went the next step: “Let’s design one that works for humans.” So we designed one that took into account these predictable behaviors and that in the design we would engineer the type of conversations we wanted leaders and their people to have. We rolled it out and the managers and staff loved it.
Max: What are some of these predictable behaviors you identified within performance appraisal, and how do they relate to evolutionary theory?
Andrew: A species like ours, with a dominance streak who can’t help but classify people but who now work in social groups much larger than our ancestral communities of up to about 150 people, would end up with a judgment system like conventional appraisal systems. Yet from an individual experiencing an assessment, those conventional systems trigger defensiveness, self-protection and not a great lift in joy in being rated average (which most people are). And whereas the system should be encouraging teamwork amongst the small work-group, conventional systems undermine teamwork because people work out that not all of us can be rated high, so contest and display kicks in to look good compared to one’s peers. What we did in the design was to ask ourselves what we most want from the system; do we want a) a number (performance rating) or b) constructive conversations between staff and their manager. We wanted the later. While there has been a shift recently toward review systems free of ratings, it was pretty novel at the time to have a performance system without ratings. Being free of ratings meant that self-protective mechanisms of individuals guarding against threat were not triggered.
Max: Fascinating, this sort of intervention exemplifies the value evolutionary thinking offers to business… Another area of particular focus for you is change management, where you’ve written an article for This View of Life on the topic. How do conventional approaches go wrong here, and what have you done to address these issues?
Andrew: Conventional change models have a stated or unstated assumption that “people resist change.” That becomes dogma. As a young HR professional I grew up on that belief – but then had cause to question it when I noticed on a major change initiative (staff transitions through IT outsourcing) that not everyone was resisting the change. What’s happening here, I thought? What else can it be to explain why some people welcome and some people resist the change? Assumptions upon which a model is built are really important. The problem with the assumption that “people resist change” is that it leads to some very unhelpful approaches. Well, first of all, the assumption tends to be self-fulfilling. It gives a license to leaders to be pretty shoddy in the way they lead change, they roll out the change without a lot of finesse in implementation, and guess what! People resist the change. It’s explained away as human nature, not the fault of poor change leadership. The second problem with the resistance assumption is that it has led to approaches like “the burning platform”. John Kotter might not have meant, but people have interpreted the concept as having to scare people to get them to change. Kotter seems to have moved away from that burning-platform statement but it’s left as a legacy. Only two days’ ago, the “burning platform” came up in a conversation I was having with someone. It gets stated as truth. Scaring people is not the way to constructively implement change. In fact, the opposite is true. People in fear tend to flock or freeze or fight or flee. In the article for This View of Life, I briefly give an explanation of what really happens when people face change and also just one key action point.
Max: You’ve already mentioned the influence Nigel Nicholson has had on your work. What’s also noteworthy is that you’ve worked with famed primatologist Jane Goodall. How did this partnership develop, and what was it like spending time with Dr. Jane Goodall?
Andrew: One of the favorite things I get to do is take business leaders to zoos. We explain human nature by way of comparison to other big-brain social species. The best comparison species is chimpanzees – the next brainiest terrestrial species and the next most socially complex. We do the zoo visits in partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute. As well as sharing insight into chimpanzee behavior that really opens people eyes, it’s been a vehicle for the Jane Goodall Institute to spread their important environmental message. That led to a lovely relationship with Dr. Goodall herself and over the last decade when she has visited Australia she and I have spoken to business audiences together. It’s been a great honor for me, to spend time with and have conversations with Dr. Goodall. I think she is one of the great figures of the 20th Century – the life she has led, the discoveries she has made and the influence she spreads.
Max: Quite remarkable Andrew! Outside of boardrooms and zoos, I understand you enjoy spending time with indigenous tribes, where you’ve recently returned from a trip across Eastern and Southern Africa. When did you begin exploring indigenous tribes and their way of life, and what are the most important things you’ve learned from them?
Andrew: About 18 months ago, my wife and I holidayed in Africa, and at the two safari camps in Kenya I spoke with three Maasai guides about their life, social system, and leadership. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to do more interviews. So this last trip in August, as well as again meeting with the Maasai and Samburu in Kenya, I met with the Bushmen and Himba in Namibia. What a thrill! To meet with three older Bushmen who remember the traditional life when the three of them were children and young adults. I have many more cultures to visit, and more books to read. The fascination is to discover the patterns across human societies, and also how they differ, and the insight that this provides for organizational leaders The most important thing I have learned is a discovery different to what I expected. At the top of my list so far is that we should not romanticise the hunter-gatherer life as the model for modern workplaces. Sure, small-scale societies were our original state of existence, but some of the limitations of those societies mean that replication is both not desirable and would be fatal. Take just one fundamental example – group size. The Bushmen (and many other hunter-gatherers) lived in camps of around 25 people. It was the size of the group that was both able to sustain itself and also be cohesive and relatively free of conflict. In the dry winter months, a number of the small groups would gather at the few permanent waterholes to make a larger group of up to about 150 individuals. They could have stayed together longer in terms of water and resources, but they would be at each other’s throats. Because they had no authority figure – no tribal leader – and no dispute resolution processes, the larger group had to split. As one informant told me, “By going our own way, it saved us having to kill each other. And remember, Andrew, we had poison arrows”. The larger group could not exist harmoniously. The message from this for me, different to what I expected, is that hunter-gathering societies have great limitations as the model for modern organizations; at least organizations that number more than 30 people.
Max: Fortunately you didn’t have to witness such violence!… You’ve also written a couple of books. Your first publication was The Boss, where you followed up with Hardwired Humans: Successful Leadership Using Human Instincts. What drove you to write these books, and what is the main thing you want readers to take from them?
Andrew: Books are a great vehicle to share one’s ideas. I wrote The Boss to hold a mirror up to leaders to show the impact leaders can have on people’s energy and output. During my career journey, I worked with some great leaders and also with some shockers. I was interested in the energy-sapping effect of the “poor” bosses. The book is a novel, so I can describe through the experiences by the main character, the emotion attached to the relationship we have with our boss. As I started writing the manuscript I realized I didn’t have to make any of it up! So it’s based on real events – incidents I am aware of or that people told me, woven together as a work of fiction. Woven into the fabric of the book are the 9 human instincts in Nigel Nicholson’s framework. The second book, Hardwired Humans, explains human instincts and how leaders can apply the framework. The book documents much of what I teach on leadership and change workshops. The main message of this book is that once leaders have an explanation for much of human behavior they can then make good leadership choices.
Max: I very much enjoyed reading Hardwired Humans. Not only is your application of evolutionary psychology to management comprehensive, it is also highly practical and a very entertaining read. From your book and your teachings, what are the most frequent ways leaders apply evolutionary psychology – apart from change management which you cover in your article?
Andrew: If I had to select the top five ways, these would be the ones. First, leaders are really taken by designing work groups into teams of around seven people – so that we are designing for function and not dysfunction. This size group feels right to people and after they make a change they report that it has made so much difference to productivity. The second is bonding – that a leader can’t be bonded unless they engage in grooming and for us humans that means to engage in chit-chat. A favorite example is a leader who reported back that he solved team tension by way of grooming – after a human instincts workshop he started a weekly ritual of the team having coffee, and the whole dynamic improved. The third is to connect with individuals – with an individuals’ sense of personal identity. Leaders are not just managing teams. And to lead at the individual level you need to know a certain number of things about the individual. The fourth is in giving “negative” feedback. Human instincts explain why leaders prefer not to give negative feedback and why leaders often avoid or procrastinate. But once we know this, we teach a better way; which is basically getting to the point so people can quickly make sense of the message. The fifth, which arises from that last point, is what I call “the first 7 words”. When we are communicating, which is obviously a major dimension of human living, we only have about two seconds or seven words before the listener classifies the message – meaning before they catalog it into either a “good” or “bad” category. As communicators, we need to use that window thoughtfully, so the listener’s classification is as we intend. Those would be the top five practical applications.
Max: An excellent summary of how evolutionary psychology can be applied by business leaders! Andrew, it’s been a pleasure interviewing you. Thank you very much so taking the time to speak with me.