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Gene politics, or how our evolutionary past influences us in the modern workplace

Datum:04 november 2014
Auteur:Elena Martinescu
Gene politics, or how our evolutionary past influences us in the modern workplace
Gene politics, or how our evolutionary past influences us in the modern workplace

Humans are the most social of all species. For the greatest part of our existence we have lived in small groups of people in which every individual was related to the others by ties of kinship. People in these small­­­­ communities of families knew each other personally, had a shared background and shared interests, and did most of their activities together. Nowadays we are surrounded by strangers, and we divide our time between people who are our kin and people who are not out kin (real or analogous). Nigel Nicholson explains how our long history of living in small communities influences the way we interact in the modern workplace.

First, people in traditional societies shared resources and invested in relations with people from their close circle of family members, friends and allies. In modern organizations we can observe that people communicate more and work better together with others who are similar in terms of skills, values, education and background. This creates small “tribes” within departments or hierarchical levels, in which principles of trust and reciprocity guide people’s behavior. We need to cooperate in groups that are relatively large, because it is in our genetic interest to cooperate beyond our kinship group. This makes us treat others as if they were our kin. In this process, we end up evaluating similarities and differences between ourselves and others, and tend to favor those who share our interests, look or think like us. Similarity on any of these dimensions makes us more inclined to do business with others.

We also re-enact kinship relations with people at work who are not our kin: we treat our bosses like parents, subordinates as children and peers as siblings. These typical family relations are hard-wired in us and influence our behavior toward our surrogate family members. Bosses see their business as “one big family”. However, sometimes firms are similar to dysfunctional families: the boss is an authoritarian parent, employees are rebellious children, and people do favors for friends as if they were indeed part of one big family. In modern economies favoritism is called corruption, but in more traditional cultures it is acceptable for people to favor family and friends in hiring, awarding contracts and granting access to information, and to use networks to give and receive introductions and advice.

Surrogate family relations are evident in leader succession, where a departing boss behaves like a parent giving his legacy to a favored child. When this does not go as planned, the new leaders often remove top placed insiders and replace them with their own trusted partners, as they would with family members in a traditional community. Brotherly-like business models are frequent in firms started by friends who trust and complement each other’s skills (Hewlett-Packard or Procter and Gamble). Being altruistic towards our work colleagues might also be explained by a desire to build reciprocity and trust relations with people we have contact frequently and on whom we depend.

Our gene politics also show in how we handle conflicts. Most conflicts that occur between people we work with frequently are caused by norms that are not mutually shared or by differing goals. When people do have a strong sense of community norms are respected by everyone and all members pursue the group goal. Fights between groups are caused by the way structures separate people according to skills and interests. The alternative is to organize around something everyone cares more than any individual characteristics.

Modern corporations impose a kind of interaction that is disconnected from the mindset of small kin communities: people come and go, many have no sense of identification with the community and no commitment to the company goal. Groups do not allow people to self-organize; rather people are told what to do and many groups are not really teams. They do not actually do anything together and what they produce is not valued by the firm or its members. People would ideally work in units small enough and constant enough to create a sense of intimacy and shared fate with their group members. To function well at work, people need to trust each other and organize dynamically around what is important to them and their business.

This article is based on Gene Politics: Family, friends and the company of strangers from Nigel Nicholson (2000). Executive instinct: Managing the human animal in the information age. Crown Business: New York.

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