Organisational Change Management Volume 2

5. Evolutionary Psychology

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. Even though we live in a world of space exploration and virtual realities, we are still hardwired with the mentality of the cave man, ie an instinct to fight fiercely when threatened, and a need to trade information and share secrets

" can take the person out of the Stone Age......but cannot take the Stone Age out of the person..."

Nigel Nicholson, 1998

. A framework for understanding why people tend to act as they do in an organisational setting is called evolutionary psychology and identifies the aspects of human behaviour that are inborn and universal. At the same time, it recognizes that individuals have differences as a result of a person's unique genetic inheritance plus personal experiences and culture.

. Evolutionary psychology raises 2 important questions

"...How might organisations be designed to work in harmony with our bio-genetic identity? Are modern-day executives managing against the grain of human nature?..."

Nigel Nicholson, 1998

. Evolutionary psychology clearly challenges some religious beliefs about creation and free will. Furthermore, it challenges some popular management concepts, which claim that people can change their personalities if correctly trained or motivated

. On the other hand, it has been claimed that evolutionary psychology overstates the bio-genetic origin of cultural mores and norms. Furthermore, it understates the capacity of

The Managerial Implications of Evolutionary Psychology
i) Thinking and Feeling

. Emotions before reasons.

An uncertain and unpredictable world has resulted in a reliance on instinct, with emotions being the first screen of all information received. On the other hand, most managers are trained to dispense with emotions in favour of rational analysis, and urged to make choices using logical devices such as decision trees and spreadsheets. But emotions can never be fully suppressed. This explains why most staff cannot receive feedback in the constructive way it is often given. Owing to the primacy of emotions, people hear bad news first and loudest, and managers cannot assume that they can balance positive and negative messages. The negatives have far greater power and one negative message can wipe out all the built-up credit of positive messages. The most discouraging and potentially dangerous thing is to tell someone that he or she has failed.

In our decision-making we are not always rational.  Rational conveys an image of greater deliberation, more calculation & less warmth; with a person's beliefs and preferences being reasonable.  Yet non-psychologists, especially economists, look at rationality as being internally consistent rather than reasonable.  Humans are not irrational but need help to make more accurate judgements and better decisions. To be rational requires more effort and we suffer from  myopia, ie the failure to give adequate weight to future benefits over a immediate pleasures/ short-term gain/instant gratification/immediate satisfaction. Some examples of myopia include

i) people choosing not to save for old age, ie spend now

ii) exposing themselves to addictive substances, ie get short-term "kick" but long-term pain, eg smoking (nicotine addiction plus long-term health problems like cancer, heart, etc). Similar story for alcohol, other additive drugs, etc

iii) people sunbaking to become tanned in the short term but exposing themselves to risk of skin cancer in the long term

iv) only 1 in 9 people who underwent heart surgery changed their life-style; yet these people had the ultimate motivation, ie possible death

v) people who drive vehicles after drinking alcohol &/or taking other drugs

ii) Loss aversion except when threatened

People try to avoid loss and as a result are not generally big risk takers. However, when people feel the circumstances are safe enough, they will try new things and be adventurous. But when harm looms, this adventurous spirit disappears. In the Stone Age, the cautious approach to loss certainly increased human beings' chance of survival and reproducing. Furthermore, it stands to reason that when seriously threatened, human beings fought fiercely for survival.

"...thus we are hardwired to avoid loss when comfortable but to scramble madly when threatened...."

Nigel Nicholson, 1998

This natural reaction can be observed in organizations, despite rules and regulations. For example, an organization announces impending layoffs but does not specify which people will lose the jobs. Most staff will do anything to save their jobs and avoid such loss. On the other hand, when an organization announces that an entire division will close, no one can escape the loss and, as result, staff become very aggressive. Instead of acting rationally, they go into panic to survive. Thus, managers need to be aware that people are hardwired to act desperately when directly threatened.

Furthermore, when staff are asked to be creative, staff will feel uncomfortable as it could be perceived as risky and uncomfortable to challenge the status quo.

On average, people avoid risk except when threatened. Usually there is a small minority who are super cautious and will not take any risk; similarly, there is a small minority who are risk takers. Most of us fall in the middle.

iii) Confidence before realism.

In the Stone Age, those people who had the self-confidence survived. A legacy of this is people who put confidence before realism and are keen to shield themselves from any evidence that would undermine their confidence. This can result in failure to notice important clues about potential disasters and a mind-set that you can control most, if not all, situations and problems. Despite this self-confidence, there are events outside our control and we all need to develop an understanding of reality to handle excessive self-confidence. Some questions which may be of use:

- Am I being overly optimistic?

- Am I demanding too much of certain staff?

vi) Classification before calculus.

In order to understand a complicated environment, people have developed prodigious capabilities for sorting and classifying information into well-organized systems. Classification makes life simpler and easier. Thus people became hardwired to stereotype people based on very small pieces of evidence, especially their looks and behaviours. Furthermore, the faster that you make decisions on these issues, the more likely you are to survive. Even comprehensive training cannot fully eliminate irrational and simplifying biases.

Thus people sub-consciously sort out others into in-groups and out-groups, such as winners and losers, by appearances and behaviours. This quick stereotyping can lead to incorrect classification, ie everyone is too busy labeling others as outsiders and dismissing them in the process.

vii) Gossip and rumours

Survivors are those who are savvy enough to anticipate power shifts and swiftly adjust to them, as well as those who can manipulate them. Gossiping which involves rumours is an exchange of key information, with networking an important part of the process, ie meeting with the right people with the right information at the right time. The informal knowledge transfer that occurs at places such as the water cooler, coffee/tea/lunch room is underestimated. These places are where the "real work"gets done: ideas happen and congeal, and get passed on

Generally official communication is less effective than gossiping and rumours.

As humans are social animals, gossiping and rumours are a way of making sense of the environment, ie it is human instinct to warn others of potential threats so they can prepare. There are 3 broad areas of office rumours:

i) strategic direction

ii) reporting structure

iii) job security, training and career paths

Furthermore, gossiping and rumours are a useful barometer of staff morale. If there is a high level of gossip and rumour, staff are feeling anxious and uncertain. On the other hand, gossiping and rumours demonstrate that people care; people only talk about things that are important to them!!

At the same time, it is unwise to ignore gossip and/or rumours; if left unchecked, they can become folklore and pseudo-fact!!! Gossiping and rumours need to be either confirmed or corrected.

On the other hand, it is a good idea to ignore gossipers and rumour-mongers as

" networks have a way of sorting these people out. Too much sensationalism or untruths and you'll lose respect and credibility..."

Prashant Bordia as quoted by Brad Hatch, 2006c

Thus managers need to utilize both the official and unofficial channels of information as ways to communicate, as long as this communication is performed in a climate of trust and openness.

. Empathy and mind reading.

These 2 skills are the building blocks of gossip. People are much more likely to hear secrets if they appear trustworthy and sympathetic. Furthermore, people with the skills of guessing what others are thinking tend to ask better and more probing questions. People are programmed for friendliness, including peaceful social alliances and negotiations with win-win outcomes.

For organisations, empathy and friendliness are positive dynamics. Furthermore, commitment and loyalty will more likely occur when employees are friendly to each other. On the other hand, empathy can lead us to imagine that people are more similar to ourselves, plus more competent and trustworthy, than they might be. For example, our natural tendency to sympathize with others can result in our excusing their weaknesses and/or read more substance into their work or personal experiences than truly exists. At the same time, our programming for classifications can make us more severe on those in the out-group, ie we focus on and exaggerate the differences we perceive.

. Contest and display

Status in tribal groupings was acquired via public competitions. The underlying purpose of these competitions was to impress others. There is an ingrained male desire to do public battle and display virility and competence which persists today. This results in males more frequently choosing competition to cooperation. These inborn differences between men and women impact on an organisation

"...we may wish human beings were more rational, but our brains, created for a different time and place, get in the can expect agendas of emotion, loss aversion, over- confidence, categorical thinking, and social intrusion to continue regularly to prevail. Evolutionary psychology thus suggests how important it is for us to have a clear view of our biased natures so that we can construct a mind-set to guard against their worst consequences..."

Nigel Nicholson, 1998

viii) Social Living

. Introduction

This involves the dynamics of human groups and is called co-evolution (the idea that cultures and social institutions are adaptations that make compromises between environmental conditions and the enduring characteristics of human psychology). When looking across the great variety of human societies, there are common themes, dilemmas and conflicts. These universal tendencies have implications for 3 areas of management: organisational design, hierarchy and leadership.

. Organisation design

People are social animals and not loners. Research has shown that around 150 members is the optimal number for tribes/clans. This may explain the dominant model worldwide for organisations that employ around 60% of all workers, ie under 150 people. Even in the larger organisations, there is a tendency for people to form cliques, functions, departments, divisions, teams, groups, etc. Several successful organisations spin off sub-units of around 50 people from the main body of a growing organisation, such as ABB and Virgin. In its early days when a Virgin firm hit 100 staff, it was divided into 2 separate organisations. This has been called the modular approach. Another term for this approach is the matrix structure, but this structure is inherently unstable because staff report to more than one boss.

. Hierarchy

This involves social relations and status seeking. The desire to obtain status in organisational settings is human nature. In most situations, the human instinct for status differentiation asserts itself. Even in small and temporary groupings of "all equals", such as training events that bring together strangers from different organisations, the beginnings of hierarchy can be immediately seen in patterns of informal leadership and differential behaviour. If status markers are eliminated in organisations, then fresh variations will spring up in their place. Status and hierarchy need to be managed in a flexible and fluid way. Furthermore, managers should recognize and reward employees through status recognition, such as financial and non-financial measures.

For groups and teams, it is worth noting that they

- should not exceed 12 members

- should not be run as strict democracies

- while building a common purpose and maintaining concepts of sharing and equal rights, need to expect and allow informal leadership roles to operate.

- need to watch out for herding (a tendency to imitate members regarded as having higher status rather than making one's own judgment.)

In the typical organisation there are contradictions, with staff being cynical about empowerment and mistrustful of downsizing/right sizing as they recognize the traditional power and hidden hierarchies are still present and in control of everyone's destiny.

. Leadership

Behavioural genetics suggests that people are born with set pre-dispositions that are hardened as they mature. Character traits such as shyness and emotional sensitivity are inborn. We all have our bio-genetic destiny, which suggests that along with each person's fundamental brain circuitry, people come with inborn personalities, such as dominance, optimism, etc. Trying to compensate for these underlying dispositions, through training or other forms of education, has little impact on changing deep-rooted inclinations.

The implications for leadership are

- the most important attribute of leadership is the desire to lead. Skills and competencies can be trained but the passion to lead cannot, ie leaders are born, not made. This means that the motivation to lead is a baseline requirement for competent leadership.

- leadership is situational, ie authoritarian, delegation, cooperation, collaboration, etc. The important thing is to have the personality profile that meets the demands of the situation

- it is vital to get people around you who complement your personality, ie shyness complemented by extroversion, etc

Summary of Evolutionary Psychology on Managerial Impact

"...Yes, you can train people, teach them about different ideas, and exhort them to change their attitudes. But evolutionary psychology asserts that there is a limit to how much the human mind can be remoulded. Proponents of evolutionary psychology assert that, because of natural selection, human beings living and working in today's modern civilisation retain the hardwired mentality - that is, the needs, drives, and biases - of Stone Age hunter-gatherers. The theory of evolutionary psychology is complex, and its implications equally so. But below is a summary of some points that evolutionary psychologists would make to managers trying to understand human behaviour..."

Nigel Nicholson, 1998

On the other hand, it is claimed

"...evolutionary physiology makes a lot of sense when it intends to explain a different behavioural patterns displayed by males and females in courtship of sexual congress: evolutionary physiology strays when it seeks to explain historical trends or artistic tastes..."

Howard Gardner, 2006a


If people are hardwired to...

Then the message for managers is to...


use emotions as the first screen for all information received


recognise that people hear bad news, such as a negative performance review, first and loudest, even when the majority of the news is good.



be careful of who is in charge of the organisation's performance appraisal system.


avoid risky situations when feeling relatively secure and to fight frantically when feeling threatened


understand that people will resist change except when they are already dissatisfied.



realise that people will act and think creatively when given space, safety, and support.


feel more self-confident than reality justifies


routinely question whether they or their employees are understanding the difficulty of work-related challenges.


quickly classify people, situations, and experiences into categories - good or bad, in or out - rather than engage in time-consuming and nuanced analysis


be careful that the interview process has controls for objective judgement.



realise that mixing disparate functions or teams means having to overcome a deep-rooted human propensity to stereotype strangers.




not waste time trying to eradicate rumours. plug into the grapevine and make sure it stays healthy, not malicious.


participate in public competitions for status and chest thumping about their success (true of men in particular)


encourage employees to refrain from one-upmanship but understand you are fighting their programming.


feel most comfortable in communities with no more than 150 members


keep organisations from growing too large and break them into smaller cells if they do.



refrain from asking people to identify with more than one group at a time - such as a regional group and a product group.


seek superiority or security in hierarchical systems


recognise that hierarchy is forever and that people will establish status distinctions even if the organisation tries to remove them.


lead in different ways or not be leaders at all


understand that the desire to lead is perhaps the most important characteristic a leader can possess.



accept that people cannot demonstrate leadership qualities they don't innately possess, even if the business situation urgently demands it.

(sources: Nigel Nicholson, 1998; Brad Hatch, 2006c; Howard Gardner, 2006a; Richard Branson, 2008)


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