Building Organizations Fit for Humans
Nigel Nicholson of the London School of Economics uses the principles of evolutionary psychology - that humans are genetically programmed to act and react in certain ways - to attack much of the accepted new wisdom of management and business. For example, leadership cannot be taught to everyone, Nicholson asserts in his book Executive Instinct. And gender-neutral workplaces are neither possible nor desirable.
Nicholson, however, is not simply interested in taking an ax to conventional wisdom about management and leadership. While evolutionary psychology might identify what is not possible to achieve with the human animal, he writes, it also points to new directions and goals for managers and their consultants.
What We Are
What, exactly, does evolutionary psychology tells us about ourselves?
We navigate by emotions, not reason. Our stone age ancestors didn't survive because they used their brains as human calculators. They survived with daring, skill, control and confidence. So do we.
We want to understand others (and control how others see us). We are designed to interpret motives, anticipate actions and read minds. Our social instincts lead us to build coalitions, avoid or punish enemies and get ahead.
We also want to build communities. Our cultural instinct is to re-create the communities of our ancestors. These communities don't number more than 150 people, and they feature hierarchical relationships, divided responsibilities and differentiated gender relations. In these communities, we also tell stories, find leaders and seek opportunities for display and ritual.
Myths of Management
The principles of evolutionary psychology can guide managers and business owners by alerting them to initiatives, goals and beliefs that push against human nature, including our social and cultural instincts. For example, Nicholson offers a list of management myths to be abandoned that includes the following:
We can get along without leaders. Even if we abolish formal leadership roles (as in self-directed teams), informal leaders will always spring up, Nicholson argues. "Some people will always want to be leaders and some people will always want to follow them," he explains.
We are moving into an age where virtual organizations and boundaryless corporations will be the norm. While we are developing new ways of working together, face-to-face interaction will continue to be preferred over long-distance communication, according to Nicholson. For that reason, traditional forms of organizations will persist.
Gossip is for women and malcontents. Nicholson quickly debunks the first part of this myth. Men have always gossiped as much as women - they just call it "networking." But even more important, gossip plays a vital role in our survival. It is a means for us to explore the motives and feelings of people we deal with, which helps us navigate our communities. Telling stories is also the natural way for us to communicate. In fact, the failure of many corporate communication efforts, writes Nicholson, "is usually due to people (managers, mainly) trying to communicate unnaturally while everyone else is trying to communicate naturally."
We can create nonhierarchical organizations. Informal pecking orders of power and influence will always exist, Nicholson writes. Humans, especially men, are hardwired to compete for reputation and status.
Men and Women
The last statement might evoke protests from some. Sexism has in the past motivated men to differentiate between the abilities and goals of men and women. Nicholson argues, however, that to ignore the differences between genders is self-defeating.
Men and women, in general, have different styles and are seeking different satisfactions, Nicholson writes. The best organizations will recognize these differences and give employees and managers of both genders the opportunities to use their natural abilities and tendencies. "Instead of seeking the uniformity of men and women - an unrealistic goal, because we persist in wanting and liking different things - we should focus on equality of opportunity and freedom from oppression," he writes. "This means recognizing rather than denying sex differences in how we think, feel and act."
Great opportunities currently exist for women, not because they are more like men, Nicholson continues, but because today's information economy better fits the hardwiring of women. "Companies are realizing that the key competencies they need are no longer purely technical or based simply upon people's authority to command," he writes. "Interpersonal and communication skills are now the key to competitive advantage in many businesses. These factors mean there has never been a better time to be a woman in business."
Avoiding scientific jargon or obtuse explanations, Nigel Nicholson presents a persuasive argument for the use of evolutionary psychology as a guide for management, leadership and human resources.