Rethinking humanity from an evolutionary perspective can be dated by terms such evolutionary psychology, evolutionary anthropology, and evolutionary economics, which were all coined at the close of the 20th century. No such term exists for the study of business and management practices, which is not the same as economics. Yet, business and management can benefit from an evolutionary perspective as much as the other topic areas. The benefits for the economy and quality of life in the workplace could be huge.
Two pioneers of “Evolutionary Business & Management” are Jonathan Haidt and Mark van Vugt. Jon was trained as a social psychologist and adopted an evolutionary perspective in that field before transitioning to a business school environment as the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Jon has served as the Business topic editor for TVOL and I was fortunate to organize a conference with him and Geoffrey Miller at Stern in 2013 titled “Darwin’s Business: New Evolutionary Thinking About Cooperation, Groups, Firms, and Societies.”
Jon is rotating off the editorial board and passing the baton to Mark, who was also trained as a social psychologist and is currently Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Work and Organizational Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a Research Associate at Oxford University. Mark is author of Naturally Selected: Why Some People Lead, Others Follow, and Why it Matters and many articles relevant to leadership, business and management. In our inaugural interview, we discuss his vision of what it means for business and management practices to be informed by evolutionary theory.
David Sloan Wilson: Welcome, Mark, to This View of Life and thanks for serving as the Business topic editor. To begin, tell us about your background and how you came to business and management from an evolutionary perspective.
Mark Van Vugt: I was trained as an experimental social psychologist in the Netherlands with no knowledge of evolution whatsoever. During my undergraduate years I took courses on the history of psychology featuring Kant, Freud, Marx, and Maslow, but amazingly not Darwin. Luckily my PhD-research was focused on environmental decision-making as a social dilemma and through this research I got exposed for the first time to models of the evolution of cooperation, mainly through reading Bob Axelrod’s work and Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons. After I took a position in Psychology at the University of Southampton in the UK my interest in evolutionary theories of cooperation further grew and I read various popular science books on the subject such as Matt Ridley’s Origins of Virtue. I realized then that there was a knowledge gap in understanding cooperation, as these models had no room for hierarchy or institutions in solving social dilemmas. Yet, if we look in the world around us we see all kinds of organized efforts to solve social dilemmas such as through charismatic leaders who get dedicated followers to help each other or through institutions or rules that enforce cooperation. This is when I decided that we should take evolutionary thinking to the world of leadership, management and organizational behavior.
There had been previous efforts to bring evolutionary thinking into the field of management, for instance, through Nigel Nicholson’s work, but this was not a sustained effort yet. Furthermore an empirical research programme based on solid evolutionary thinking was lacking in the field of organizational behavior [OB]. So once I got to Amsterdam and started a new job as professor in work and organizational psychology, my aim was to try to build a more solid theoretical foundation underlying OB with a particular focus on leadership and management. That is what I have been doing the past 6 years with the help of various collaborators, and we are starting to make inroads in various OB-fields by applying evolutionary theories like niche-construction, multilevel selection, costly signaling, and life history to understand how people behave in organizations and how organizations evolve and behave vis-a-vis each other. My experiences have been positive so far as I see a growing interest among researchers from business schools in evolutionary approaches and management journals have been receptive to our work. In September I will be starting as an Associated Editor at The Leadership Quarterly, the flagship academic journal dedicated to leadership research and theory, and I am hoping that scholars from across the evolutionary sciences will see this as an opportunity to get their work on leadership and hierarchy published.
DSW: The intersection of evolutionary theory, social psychology, and organizational sciences is incredibly exciting, as I have been discovering for myself. Let’s focus on leadership. As you know, the literature on this subject is voluminous. How does an evolutionary perspective add value to what already exists?
MvV: The obvious answer is that an evolutionary perspective enables us to address the key question: why leadership? The psychological and organizational literatures on leadership are primarily interested in how leadership emerges and what leadership style is most effective in any given situation. Naturally these are important questions. But adopting an evolutionary view forces us to consider a more fundamental question: why do human groups have leaders and what adaptive challenges does leadership solve? Our answer is that leadership is an evolved mechanism for social coordination. Once you view leadership as a coordination device a lot of things make sense, for example, why you can find evidence of leadership across different social species, from ants to baboons, and from honey bees to humans. In addition, the emphasis shifts from leaders to followers as followership is the real evolutionary puzzle to solve. Finally, an evolutionary approach forces one to consider similarities and differences between leadership in the large, complex organizations in which we now work, and the small scale societies in which humans evolved. It seems that our modern organizational structures are not always best fitted to our evolved followership psychology, creating all sorts of challenges.
DSW: At the Darwin’s Business conference that I mentioned in the introduction, the economist Herbert Gintis had this to say about business schools in America:
After World War II, business schools blossomed all over the United States. All the major universities set up business schools. Before that, businessmen were just businessmen. They didn’t go to college, or if they did they didn’t learn anything about business. But these new business schools were very professional. When they wanted to teach economics, they simply borrowed from the economics discipline. In economics it’s called Homo economicus. Homo economicus is not that popular any more but it certainly was after World War II. Homo economicus has no emotions. He’s totally interested in maximizing his wealth and income. He really doesn’t care about other people, although he does care about leisure. Leisure, income, and wealth are the only things. When they taught this to business school students it obviously followed that if you’re a good businessman you should just maximize your material wealth. This is greedy. Being greedy is human, it’s good to do, and the more greedy you are the more successful you’ll be.
Do you agree with this assessment, and does it also describe the history of business schools in Europe? I have an impression that at least some business schools in Europe (e.g., Norway) are less influenced by Neoliberalism and offer a more cooperative model.
MvV: I suppose I agree to some extent, although I do not work in a Business School myself, but in a Psychology department. It seems from my experience that the Business schools in Europe are often more closely connected to regular university departments like Economics, Management and Political Science (at my university the business school is part of the Faculty of Economics). This means that there is probably more diversity in organizational theories. Also, there are certainly differences in emphasis between how businesses are run in Europe and the US. Whereas the emphasis in companies in the US is on shareholder value, European companies are often more concerned about stakeholder value. The stakeholders include not only shareholders and employers but also employees as well as national and local governments. I guess there is more room for non-economic currencies like sustainability and fairness as a result. Just as an example: in the Netherlands there is a salary cap for the heads of public and semi-public organizations. And, work negotiations take place in centralized meetings between the representatives of businesses, governments, and unions to make sure everyone gets a fair share.
DSW: I’m glad that Elinor Ostrom came to your attention early in your career. As you know, she received the Nobel prize in 2009 for showing that groups are capable of managing common pool resources if they possess eight core design principles. I worked with Lin and her associate Michael Cox to generalize her core design principle approach in two respects: First, they follow from the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation in all species and our evolutionary history as a highly cooperative species. Second, for this reason, they apply not only to common pool resource groups, but to any nearly any group attempting to achieve common goals. In an important sense, cooperation is itself a common pool resource. This leads to a prediction that business groups need the core design principles to function well, just like other groups (see here for more). Do you agree with this reasoning? If so, do you know of evidence to support it?
MvV: Yes, it is clear that Ostrom’s core design principles for managing the commons can be usefully applied to business organizations. Take the importance of consensus-building. The organizational psychology literature shows that employees are more willing to accept management decisions if they had a voice in them. Even though it may not be their preferred decision, workers still like it better if they have had a say. Similarly, the current trend towards self-organizing teams may not be a fashion but a reflection of a fundamental desire of groups to maintain some degree of autonomy and authority over their own affairs. Finally, there is research showing that organizations perform better if there are levelling mechanisms in place that curtail the power of their bosses such as a regular turnover in leadership and opportunities to criticize them.
DSW: Let’s end our interview by previewing some of the topics that you hope to cover in your role as the Business topic editor for TVOL.
MvV: One of my aims is to convince organizational scientists that taking an evolutionary perspective can be really valuable for both research and organizational practice. One relevant theme is to consider how we can design more effective organizations based on knowledge about how the human mind works. Another is to consider the appeal of non-hierarchical organizations and self-organizing teams. Are these just fads or do they reflect something more fundamental about the human condition? Finally, I’d be interested to examine in more detail what factors drive the transition from decision-making hierarchies to dominance hierarchies — and vice versa — in modern organizations. What role do within-group versus between-group competition pressures play in the emergence of power differences in business organizations?
DSW: Fantastic! I’m proud that the Evolution Institute and TVOL are able to provide an outlet for publicizing great content such as this.