Humans evolved over the past 1.2 million years, and for 99.9 percent of this time we lived as hunter-gatherers in small bands composed of kith and kin. During this period (the Pleistocene) we developed a suite of evolved psychological and physical mechanisms that were adaptive in this context1. For example, people who were predisposed to cooperate with group members, mate with members of the opposite sex who evidenced signs of fertility, and were attentive and caring towards offspring—these people were most likely to survive and reproduce. Although our psychology and physiology remains primarily adapted to life as hunter-gatherers – we still possess most of that same suite of psychological mechanisms – the environment we live in now is dramatically different. Yet from the advent of the industrial revolution to the present, the business class paid scant attention to human nature. The social and physical design of organizations focused on efficiency and cost-savings. This resulted in a mismatch between our work environments and human nature2.
From the advent of the industrial revolution to the present, the business class paid scant attention to human nature. The social and physical design of organizations focused on efficiency and cost-savings. This resulted in a mismatch between our work environments and human nature.
Therefore, one of the greatest insights an evolutionary perspective offers to business is this: design the physical and social characteristics of organizations so that they are compatible with our evolved human nature. Understanding this insight will help to create organizations that people enjoy working at, where they work hard to make them succeed, and where people are motivated to do their best. There are many ways to do this. Here are three examples.
Keep business units small.
Humans evolved in social units no larger than 150 people—and for good reason. We can only remember the names, faces, and our interaction history of about 150 people. Research by Robin Dunbar has found that this is a robust limit. Modern hunter-gather groups consist of about 150 people, the average total number of Christmas cards a household sends out is around 150, and military companies (from the Romans to the present) consist of about 150 soldiers3. Effective communication, coordination, trust and cohesion breaks down once the social unit exceeds 150, what has become known as Dunbar’s number. If a business unit exceeds 150 people, firms should cleave the old unit and start a new one.
Increase face-to-face interaction.
We are a social species that evolved in an environment where communication was face-to-face. As a result, we developed a suite of finely tuned verbal and non-verbal communication mechanisms. We can get a good read on another person’s emotional state, intentions, trustworthiness, and personality within a few minutes of interaction. We did not evolve in front of computer screens. Therefore, we are better able to solve problems, exchange nuanced information, and develop trust through face-to-face interaction. Better business results are likely when there is high-quality interaction among employees and between employees and customers.
In The Social Conquest of Earth, E. O. Wilson’s argues that humans have become the dominant species on the earth primarily because of our ability to cooperate. We are both a social species and a species where members can cooperate and help people who are not kin. This, combined with our cognitive and language capabilities, has enabled us to create large organizations and societies that have spanned the globe4. Too often, though, business structures encourage internal conflict (e.g., between management and labor) and hyper-competitiveness (among people and firms), which go far beyond the sweet spot of a reasonable mix of cooperation and competition. Some good places to start include linking rewards to cooperative behavior and reducing the absurd array of corporate status symbols and pay distinctions. Designing organizations so that they are compatible with human nature is important because of the fundamental insight that an evolutionary perspective can offer business: adapt to changes in the environment or die. Because the environment is continually changing, successful adaptation means continuous adaptation. But you already know this and know that this is extremely difficult. What you may not know is that most organizations (and most species) do not adapt and eventually go extinct5. Therefore, when the physical and social design of organizations is well-matched to our evolved human nature, you improve the organization’s capabilities for adapting and lower its chances of premature extinction.
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1. Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
2. An, M., Colarelli, S. M., O’Brien, K., & Boyajian M. E. (2016). Why we need more nature at work: Effects of sunlight exposure and natural elements on employee well-being. PLOS ONE, 11, e0155614.
3. Dunbar, R. I. (1997). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. For a very readable review of studies related to Dunbar’s number, see: Konnikova, M. (Oct. 7, 2014). The limits of friendship. The New Yorker.
4. Wilson. E. O. (2012). The social conquest of earth. New York: Norton.
5. Alroy, J. (2008). Dynamics of origination and extinction in the marine fossil record. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105 (Supplement 1), 11536–11542.
Freeman, J., Carroll, G. R., & Hannan, M. T. (1983). The liability of newness: Age dependence in organizational death rates. American sociological review, 48, 692-710 Perry, M. J. (Oct 12, 2015). Fortune 500 firms in 1955 v. 2015: Only 12% remain, thanks to the creative destruction that fuels economic prosperity. AEIdeas: A public policy Blog from AEI. Foundations of Organizational Behavior, 203.