AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Natural Work (Part 2)


Copyright 1999 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.


What Evolutionary Psychology Can Teach Us about Managing People

by Darcy Hitchcock

Happy people flying ontopIn the last issue of the AXIS Advisory, we explored how to apply nature’sstrategies in the design of organizations. But in addition to designingorganizations so that they accommodate the limitations of nature, we shouldalso operate our organizations so that they accommodate the strengths andweaknesses of human nature. What would it be like to make working as naturalas walking, to create a workplace where people can be themselves and gainfulfillment by contributing their best gifts? In this issue, we’ll explorehow insights from evolutionary psychology can help us manage people.

In many ways, how we work in today’s economy is unnatural. We are expectedto work an eight-, ten- or twelve-hour shift, even though our energy levelswax and wane during the day. Some people even work graveyard when, accordingto the National Sleep Foundation, our bodies never adapt. In spite of havingphysiques designed for hunting and gathering, many sit in a cubicle allday often devoid of natural light, forced to do repetitive, small motiontasks. Work is isolated from the rest of our lives and our communities,separating people from family members for most of the day.

While our world has changed dramatically in the last few thousand years,our genetics have barely budged. So how would we work differently if wewanted to align our organizational practices with human nature? So let’sgo back to what humans evolved to do and see if we can adapt the workplaceto those characteristics. (See the sidebar, The Nature of Humans.) In thisarticle, I can only touch on some of the implications. Please share yourinsights as well.

The Nature of Humans

Evolutionary psychology informs us about human nature. According to Nigel Nicholson in the Harvard Business Review article, “How Hardwired Is Human Behavior?” (July-August 1998), it seems humans have, through their evolutionary experiences, evolved to:

  • Use emotions as the first screen for all information. (Remember the last time you got negative feedback on your performance appraisal.) So why do we expect organizations to act rationally?
  • Avoid risky situations when feeling secure but fight ferociously when threatened. (Think about how differently people act when the organization is doing fine financially versus when it is faced with layoffs.) So how do we get people to modify their behavior in response to intangible threats like global climate change?
  • Feel more self-confident than reality justifies. (Recall the Challenger Disaster or the stock market performance before the Great Depression.) So how can we get people to attend to real threats?
  • Quickly classify things. (Us-them, good-bad, business-government, customer-supplier). So how can we get people to understand complex interdependencies when they are already in information-overload?
  • Gossip (i.e., the grapevine). If gossip represents our preferred mode of communication, is it any wonder that, despite newsletters, bulletin boards and executive presentations, many employees complain about the lack of “communication”?
  • Feel most comfortable in communities with no more than 150 members. (Think about the enduring prevalence of small businesses, accounting for about 60% of all employment). So is it any wonder that employees in behemoth corporations feel disenfranchised?
  • Seek superiority or security in hierarchical systems. (Consider all the times we claim something requires the buy-in of top management.) Might this explain why matrix management and self-directed teams seem to be fragile structures?
  • Lead in different ways. (Entrepreneurs’ businesses often outgrow their management style.) So how can we make sure we have the leaders to match our challenges?
  • Participate in public competitions, particularly true of men. (Hey, I didn’t say this; Nicholson did. Remember your last sales contest, United Way Campaign or executive meeting.) Does this explain why so many women leave corporations to start their own businesses?

Tribal-sized Organizations

According to evolutionary psychology, people feel most comfortable ingroups of up to 150 because we used to live in tribes which tended to breakapart into bands when they reached a couple hundred people. And our idealteam size of 8-12 people approximates the size of extended families.

So how might we organize if we used family and tribe as a model for groupsize? Rather than exhorting the masses to identify with a behemoth corporation,teams and departments might be limited to about a dozen people and corporationscould be divided into autonomous business units of approximately 150 people.ABB Asea Brown Boveri, a $30 billion electrical engineering company, isfamous for prospering in this manner. Percy Barnevik, president and CEO,reconstructed the corporation into 1,300 individual businesses worldwide.

What keeps us from doing this? Often the barrier is technology. Manufacturingprocesses are often limited by the equipment. But recall the success ofmini-steel mills, something many claimed was impossible. Perhaps if we made”tribalism” a product design goal, we could create machines thatserve us instead of the other way around.

So consider these actions:

  • Divide larger organizations into independent business units.
  • If you can’t do that, redesign your planning, measurement and reward systems around this scale.
  • If you are merging two companies, assess the fit of their tribal values. If they are quite different, the best success seems to come in keeping a hands-off relationship, as in the case of Disney’s purchase of Miramax.

Matrix structures (including the “centers of excellence” promotedby reengineering devotees), which make people be members of more than onetribe, appear to be “unnatural” and are devilishly hard to manage.People tend to ignore one of the relationships. For example, one of ourclients, an environmental agency, is organized around “media”(air, water, etc.) but the employees are exhorted to also be matrixed togeographic regions (a more logical structure for managing environmentalproblems.). Predictably, they tend only to pay attention to their functional/mediatribe.

This is made worse when organizations try to present the two relationshipsas equal. In these situations, it may help to describe the relationshipsas concentric circles rather than equal bonds or hierarchical organizationcharts. For humans have long dealt with family-band-tribe-nation relationshipsrippling out. The “hierarchy” imposed by the concentric circlesshould represent objective reality (e.g., a watershed is larger than oneriver, and air quality must be managed on a regional basis because it blowsbeyond county boundaries) rather than some arbitrary structure imposed bymanagement.

Vision Quests, not Mission Statements

If emotions are our first filter, why do organizations so often ignorethe power of passion, vision, and affiliation. Mission statements postedon the wall and job descriptions don’t come close to creating a sense ofcommunity or a passion to contribute.

At AXIS, we set aside one day each quarter to think. We call them DaVinci Days because they are intended to spark creativity. We frame a question,travel to a place of beauty and talk…about what we want, how we feel aboutwhat we have been doing, what we need to learn next. Sometimes we take otherpeople with us. When do you give people at work time to speak fromtheir hearts and integrate that new knowledge into the work you do? If emotionsare the first filter, let’s tap into them.

What might a corporate “vision quest” look like? Marvin Weisbord’s”future search conferences” are one model where approximately60 carefully selected people spend two to three days reviewing their past,analyzing the present and imagining their future. If we organized into tribalsized groups, this process could easily involve most of the organization.

There are many other methods to tap into people’s passion that take lesstime. You can stage mock press conferences or use guided visualization.The Corporate Mystic provides a personal visioning process using three people:a visioner, facilitator and scribe. After choosing a goal or problem, thefacilitator asks the visioner to imagine success and then answer a seriesof questions including: What is it that makes this a success? What did otherpeople learn of most value that allowed them to contribute? What were thecourse corrections that might have thrown you off?

Distilling some of the tips from many visioning processes yields thisadvice:

  • Schedule uninterrupted time for reflection
  • Build in quiet time for contemplation
  • Create a safe space to speak openly
  • Focus first on the future, what you want; imagine it with all your senses
  • Use a variety of methods to tap into people’s creativity: drawing, skits, brainstorming, physical activities, etc.

Ceremony more than Communication

Think of all the meetings you have as ceremonies: the stockholders meeting,staff meetings, your performance appraisal. What’s missing? The ceremony!Rituals integrate our emotions into a task. At work, where is it that wedance together, have rights of passage, recognize acts of bravery, appreciateour bounty, and honor our “elders”? Strong teams do many of thesethings. In most organizations, the closest we come to ceremony is the goldwatch after 30 years of service and donuts at mind-numbing staff meetings.Come on. We can do better.

Dancing together-Dancing involves synchronizingourselves with the movement of others, that glorious sense of being partof a community performing something beautiful and symbolic. Singing in achoir or playing team sports can have the same effect. Many cultures usedrumming. It is a ritual of joy, exhilaration and connectedness.

How could we create similar experiences at work? You will need to findpractices which fit your organization’s culture. It might be a well-orchestratedclient presentation, the annual departmental soccer match or the volunteerassembly line preparing gift boxes for the needy during the holidays. Butplan something that, for an instant anyway, aligns all your spirits.

Rights of passage-Birth, coming of age,marriage, death. These are passages around which most cultures have elaborateceremonies. Much of the joy of such ceremonies comes from the anticipation(preparing for the wedding), and from the repetition of rituals (so theparents relive their own wedding vows at their daughter’s service). In society,each ceremony has its own unique rituals.

Yet at work, how do we handle the new hire’s first day, a promotion,the completion of an important project, or the return of an injured worker?At worst, it’s business as usual: oh-you-must-be-the-new-guy. At best, it’soften lunch paid for by the boss?the same ritual regardless of the passage.We need better, more meaningful rituals for each of our work passages. Atone client, we structured a welcoming “ceremony” that involvedeach person talking about what it was like to work in their high-performanceenvironment–an act which meant as much to the old team members as the new.Projects could be capped off with a ritual of appreciation to thank theclient. Perhaps promotions could be met with a tamer version of the bachelor’sparty.

Recognizing bravery- In our organizationswe still hunt (for customers), go to war (with competitors), protect thetribe (against hostile take-overs) and withstand great pain (during lay-offs).Fortunately most managers have evolved past the that’s-what-they-get-paid-forstyle of leadership. But we don’t often make enough hoopla over our accomplishments.

I will never forget the day I came back to the office with a huge contractfrom Cadillac, turning around the dismal financial performance of my thenemployer. My employees had spent all morning stringing paper Cadillacs acrossthe office. One proudly presented a pink Cadillac mug brimming with flowers.There were exuberant hugs and verbal applause.

We often talk about celebrating our successes but rarely reach this “high.”What made this instance so memorable? The strength of emotions. What madethis so effective? Like many ceremonies, it required preparation on thepart of those who would participate.

So perhaps we shouldn’t delegate the thankless task of planning the companypicnic or holiday bash to just a few people. Instead, ask everyone to makesome effort in the preparation: cook a dish, make a decoration, or tella story.

Appreciating our bounty-Thankfulness ispart of many tribal customs. The Iroquois had a ritual before beginninga meeting of systematically thanking everything in their universe: the sun,the moon, the rain, the bird, the fish. It served to “center”people and generate a certain reverence. Try recounting your blessings nexttime you are feeling down; it changes how you feel and see the situation.

Contrast this with our tendency in corporations to focus on what’s wrongand to take for granted what is going right. For some the only acknowledgmentof bounty is the stub on their profit sharing check, more of a pay-off thana celebration.

So try these techniques:

  • Start your team meetings publicly thanking members who have contributed or helped.
  • At least four times a year, take time out to talk together about your accomplishments, hopes and new goals (what we call a team improvement review).
  • At least once a year, plan a memorable, symbolic celebration that will keep people buzzing for months and be the source of legends. (See the Case Corner for an example.)
  • Investigate using appreciative inquiry instead of problem solving as a process for making improvements. This forces you to examine what has gone well and how to get more of that.

Honoring our “elders”-It is theelders who give us a connection to our past. They carry the stories, maintainthe values, bring the wisdom of a long lifetime, and moderate the impulsivenessof youth.

In a corporate sense, “elders” may not necessarily be older,but rather be those with more longevity, wisdom, foresight, or skill. Wetake for granted that managers should give feedback to employees, but howoften do managers get positive feedback from their employees? How oftendoes the CEO hear words of appreciation? How often do we thank all our “teachers”?We have Secretary’s Day but no Founder’s Day. It sounds absurd even to suggestit. But what does it do to our leaders when we neglect to thank them fortaking the lead? (Recall that some people are genetically predisposed notto.)

Case Corner: Designing a Memorable Ceremony

Vancouver Housing Authority wanted a symbolic event to kick off their implementation of a new corporate direction. We helped them design a one-day “big event” for all employees. After clarifying outcomes, we jointly developed startling ways to grab attention. These included a room-sized corporate time line (painted by local school kids) which the director, after busting out of a “time machine” in a wizards costume, used to pay tribute to their proud history. Teams/ departments developed skits to interpret the new direction; one group led us all in a raucous sing-along set to the YMCA song. We ceremoniously threw out unnecessary procedures into a trash can, and wrapped up the day by planting a garden at the county fair grounds. While many on the management team feared the “big event” might be considered corny, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Want to perk up your next all-employee meeting? Let us help you design the event.

Hunting, Gathering and Play

Did you know that the average “work day” for “primitive”tribes tends to be around 3 hours? This is the time it takes them to gatherwater, prepare food, provide shelter, etc. Much of the remaining time isspent talking, napping, playing. Gossip, also part of our evolutionary successstrategies, was a practice which helped to hold the community together andtrack shifting power bases.

At first blush, the thought of dropping our workday down to this levelseems unattainable, and perhaps it is. But it is instructive to rememberthat this is the work schedule we have evolved to live with. Think aboutthe problems we create by violating this threshold: accidents, burnout,stress, childhood delinquency. We were never intended to sit in a cubicleall day long or work eight hours straight.

How might we adapt the working day, just a little, to these innate patterns?The Gymboree Corporation rings a bell at 3 PM each Thursday and declaresrecess. Their employees take walks and play four-square, a popular schoolyard game. You might want to try some of these suggestions:

  • Make time in staff meetings for something playful. (I know a facilitator who allows time for a “humor break” in each meeting where someone shares a joke, cartoon, etc.)
  • Provide enough variety of work tasks during the day to keep people fresh. Schedule the intense physical or mental work in two bursts during the workday, interspersed with more relaxed, even mindless, repetitive, hypnotic tasks.
  • Encourage playful, child-like behavior. Play tag in the parking lot during lunch to get the blood flowing again. Make playful items available: nerf balls or squirt guns.

Conflicts and Competition

Competition, also a part of human nature, usually is interwoven withceremony. (Think about the Olympic Games.) But it is the ceremony that boundsit and keeps it safe. I have heard that in Argentina years past, two menwho wanted to compete over a woman would gather in a public plaza and dancethe tango — together. (What an image!) An aboriginal woman from Australiatold me that when two tribes came into conflict, they would battle, butthe moment one person was injured or killed, the battle ended. Symbolic,safe, public, bounded. Instead in our organizations, we let competitionrun rampant. Intentionally and unknowingly we use financial measures topit divisions against one another, performance measures to pit shifts againsteach other and performance reviews to pit employees against each other.Competition isn’t an event, it’s become a milieu. And it eats away at thebonds that hold our tribe together.

Instead of keeping people at a constant state of fight-or-flight adrenalinerush, try to:

  • Give a competition a clear beginning and ending through campaigns and contests.
  • Develop methods that reduce the negative side effects of losing. For example, Honda chartered parallel teams to design a car where only one design would actually be built. But they went out of their way to applaud and integrate the innovations from the “losing” team, reintegrating them into the tribe. (Pascale, 1990)
  • Since men may be more disposed to competition, find other ways to motivate those women (and men) who prefer cooperation.

Council of Elders instead of a Boss

All primates have leaders and we are no exception. Some people seek superiority–tobe in control–and most share a tendency to look to our leaders for comfortand direction. Just like other primates, our leaders help us understandour place within the community (pecking order), define the community bounds(who’s in and who’s out), and most importantly provide direction, especiallyduring a crisis. “Leaderless teams” are a figment of our imagination.A leader will emerge whether we want one to or not.

Where we run afoul in our organizations most often, though, is not thatwe expect no one to take the lead but rather that we expect one person tolead. According to evolutionary psychology, we lead in different ways.

To expect one leader to lead in all situations is a mistake, especiallyin today’s complex business climate. So rather than associating leadershipwith a person or position, we should consider it a function. Ask, “Whois the best person to lead us through this task?” In the shared leadershipof self-directed work teams, for example, leadership is assigned based oncompetence rather than a position.

Nicholson also claims that some people are programmed to follow, notto lead at all. This may explain why in self-directed teams, some membersnever take a leadership role. We can encourage them to get involved, butsome may be predisposed not to assume a “star point” role, forexample. And forcing them to is probably a mistake.

Many indigenous populations have a council of elders, one way of sharingleadership and balancing one another’s weaknesses. From a practical pointof view, our organizations have no such thing. The board of directors, asidefrom often being a patsy to the CEO, isn’t much involved with the rest ofthe tribe. What if every department or team had its own council of elders,knowledgeable people to whom they could go for advice, support, comfort,direction, and occasionally, arbitration? Without this leadership, conflictsgo on too long, issues don’t get addressed, people feel disconnected, andthe organization lacks direction.

So make sure the leader fits the situation:

  • Provide multiple leadership roles. (Star points, de Bono’s six thinking hats, and the meeting roles in Mining Group Gold are all practical examples of this.)
  • Develop a team approach to managing. (When one of our clients redesigned their functional structure into cross functional teams, the functional supervisors each became a “process coach” to a particular team but became the “technical coach” in their areas of expertise for the whole department.)
  • Consider assigning a council of elders for every team or department.

Seeing the Whole, Our Greatest Challenge

For life in the 21st Century, our greatest weakness is our inabilityto perceive and react to complex, systemic problems. According to evolutionarypsychology, we quickly classify things, under-estimate threats, and thenfight ferociously once the threat becomes apparent.

Classifying things reduces our ability to appreciate their complexities.For example, in our competitive culture, we interpret what we see throughthat lens. Watching National Geographic specials, I came to expect the Africansavanna to be rife with eat-or-be-eaten competitive behavior. So on a tripto Zimbabwe I was amazed to discover the bohemian lifestyle the animalslived. The vast majority of the time was focused around cooperation andsynergy–termites cultivating their own food, a bee guide bird that leadshumans to honey so it can eat the grubs, and the baboon warning the grazingzebra of the presence of lions–instead of Darwinian acts.

Once we classify something, we stop observing its true nature. So what?Remember when “Made in Japan” equated to junk? We leave ourselvesopen to being blind-sided when we simplify something to cram it into a mentalbox.

So how might we keep seeing what’s real instead of our reality redux?Use processes which force us to view the world with new eyes. For example,bring in naive outsiders when you analyze your

processes. Consider the diversity of thinking when you form a team orhire people. Read publications that promote different world views, especiallyones you disagree with. Challenge your own assumptions.

Evolutionary psychology also indicates that we underestimate risks. Thisis especially true of discontinuous events. Recall the Kobe earthquake orHarry Truman now buried under mountains of ash on Mt. St. Helens. Beforethe big eruption, I too discounted scientists warnings of a cataclysmicevent. So how do we get our Pollyanna brains to be more realistic in ourassessments?

  • Identify important factors which are subject to the “boiled frog” phenomenon (where the frog doesn’t notice the water is getting hotter), especially those with positive feedback cycles and long lead times. For example, global climate change may lead to more forest fires which will lead to more CO2 in the atmosphere which will lead to more climate change (a positive feedback loop). CFC’s will continue to destroy ozone for decades after we stop emitting them (a long lead time). Track these factors and take seriously any minor changes in trends.
  • Also, identify discontinuous processes which like a pendulum can reverse course or like a volcano can erupt. Monitor these as well.
  • Use scenario planning to identify strategies to deal with these potentialities. Get everyone in the organization involved in scanning the horizon. (For one easy method, see the clipping process in Flight of the Buffalo.)
  • In meetings, assign a devil’s advocate role or use de Bono’s “black hat” liberally.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing to remember about human nature is ourtendency to avoid risk when we’re comfortable but then overreact fiercelywhen threatened. Your ability to operate a business is dependent upon theexistence of a civilized society. Sarajevo and Kosovo are but recent remindersof how tenuous that can be.

  • So watch for boiling points where citizens or employees are denied their basic rights and needs through politics, famine, work practices, or other injustice. Use your influence to turn the situation around.
  • Be sensitive to cultural differences so you don’t precipitate a backlash by assuming the American Way is the right way.
  • Use SA 8000 or some other framework for assessing the social responsibility of global operations. (See Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency (CEPAA) at
  • On a smaller scale, use empowerment, teams and open book management as a way to help people see how they fit into the big picture and get more control over their lives.

Think of the potential benefits of “natural work.” By tappinginto emotions and employing more meaningful rituals, we can gain a morecommitted workforce. If we keep our organizations down to 150 employees,we may gain stronger loyalty. By aligning work to our natural rhythms weshould reduce mistakes and accidents. If we confer leadership based on therequirements of the situation, we should get better decisions. It is fareasier to adapt our workplace to human nature than expect human nature toadapt to it.


de Bono, Edward (1986) Six Thinking Hats Little Brown & Co.

Hendricks, Gay and Kate Ludeman (1996). The Corporate Mystic. BantamBooks.

Kohn, Alfie (1986). No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Houghton

Mander, Jerry and Edward Goldsmith (eds) (1996). The Case Against the
Global Economy and a Turn

toward the Local. Sierra Club Books.

Michalko, Michael (1991) Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity
for the 90’s. Ten Speed Press.

Nicholson, Nigel. “How Hardwired is Human Behavior?” Harvard
Business Review (July/August 1998) pp. 135-147.

Pascale, Richard Tanner (1990). Managing on the Edge: How the Smartest
Companies Use Conflict to Stay Ahead. Simon & Schuster.

Schwartz, Peter (1991). The Art of the Long View. NY: Doubleday Currency
(on scenario planning)

Trompenaars, Fons (1994) Riding the Waves of Culture: Irwin.

Van der Ryn, Sim & Stuart Cowan (1996) Ecological Design. Island

Webber, Alan. “Learning for a Change” FastCompany (May 1999)pp. 178-188. (Interview with Peter Senge).

Weisbord, Marvin (1993)Discovering Common Ground. Berrett-Koehler

Wolff, Robert (1994). Hope Lies in our Ability to Bring Back to AwarenessWhat It Is to Be Human. Freeland, WA: Periwinkle Press.


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