An Aesop fable tells of two neighbours who prayed to Jupiter to grant their hearts’ desire. One was full of avarice (excessive greed for wealth or material gain), and the other eaten up with envy. To punish them both, Jupiter granted that each might have whatever he wished for himself, but only on condition that his neighbour had twice as much. The avaricious man prayed to have a room full of gold. No sooner said than done, but his joy quickly turned to grief when he discovered that his neighbour had two rooms full of the precious metal. Then came the turn of the envious man, who could not bear to think his neighbour had any joy at all. So he prayed that he might have one of his own eyes put out, by which means his companion would become totally blind.
Unfortunately, this ancient story still holds true today. Competition exists between groups in every aspect of life, from personal life to work life. Many organisations spend more time and energy struggling for status within their organisation than fighting for the survival of that organisation. As our guest on the Innovation Show Dr Robert Hogan tells us: “If you lose the battle for survival, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge, who’s up and who’s down. There’s competition within the group for status, there’s competition between groups for survival, and if you lose a battle for survival, you’re done. People confuse leadership with status within the group. No, leadership is what keeps you going vis-à-vis whoever your potential threats are.”
This Thursday Thought proposes that our evolutionary history reveals a slow progression from selfishness and competition to cooperation and collaboration. With every cycle of evolution, we will see increased collaboration and altruism. If we do not evolve this way, we will see increased social carnage, destruction of our planet and the demise of our species. In a world of increasing complexity, stimulated by merging technologies, new business models and mass disruption, there is an increasing need for cooperation between individuals, within organizations and across industries. Before we look at an alternative culture within organisations, let’s start with the predominant culture, one of competition.
Missing the Obvious Threat
For those who have not seen it before, the video above is the Monkey Business Illusion. If you can do so, please watch it before reading on, you don’t need sound. It takes one minute and forty seconds. In the experiment; we see people passing a basketball. Our task is to count the passes made by the players wearing white. As we count, a man in a black gorilla suit appears, stops, beats his chest and exits the screen. You would expect most people to see the Gorilla, but 50% miss the obvious. It has nothing to do with age or intelligence; they miss the gorilla because they are so focussed on counting the passes. The authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons devised this Invisible Gorilla experiment to show how we can miss the obvious. I highlight this example of selective attention, because when we are so focussed on our survival within a group, we miss threats from outside the group.
Established organisations are much more liable to external disruption, because they become more concerned with protecting what they have created (exploiting) than looking for fresh opportunities (exploring). When organisations grow beyond about 150 people, know as “Dunbar’s number”, (named after forthcoming guest on the Innovation show Robin Dunbar) the group dynamics change. Reward and recognition structures within organisations can negatively affect behaviour too. Rewarding or punishing employees for individual contributions can make employees more risk-averse. They become afraid to make mistakes if it affects their salary or bonus, and therefore they hold back. The next time you bring a killer idea to your boss, it is helpful to understand that idea represents a risk to both their salary and their status. Fear of making mistakes creates cultures where employees become defensive, using their energy to cover their backs and blame others. Such reward structures discourage cooperation or innovation. Therefore, more and more organisations are switching from individual to team-based evaluation.
The Wisdom of Natural Selection
American biologist, naturalist, and writer E. O. Wilson tells us that natural selection has shaped society to become increasingly cooperative. Wilson has deeply studied the behaviors of ants. Our time on earth pales in comparison with ants, which have evolved over 130 million years. Their cooperative societies enable them to survive and thrive in conditions that would threaten the most resilient of human civilizations. Wilson tells us “The same necessary altruistic restraint has existed at every major transition of evolution. At the level of the origin of society, one selfish ant or termite can weaken and doom its entire colony. A single psychopathic dictator can destroy an entire nation. The potential contest of Individual versus group pervades all levels of life from cells to empires. […] The group must overcome the regency of the organism and the seemingly absolute priority of selfish personal success.”
The message is clear, survival relies on collaboration and putting the group ahead of the individual. If there’s competition, it’s healthy and positive competition. The coronavirus is a glorious example of putting survival ahead of status. Never have we seen such collaboration and cooperation between researchers looking for a cure in face of a common enemy.
There is always a coronavirus, whether it be the destruction of our planet, cardiovascular disease or disruption in your industry. Evolution teaches us the only way is to collaborate and to put the group ahead of the individual. Perhaps we are amid the birth of a new altruistic society? The question is, “Do we have enough evolutionary runway for natural selection to deliver more altruistic individuals?” It is a question I ask in full awareness, that if it came down to saving my family or saving a group of people, I don’t know. My selfish genes would win the battle.
THANKS FOR READING
If you like the concepts discussed here from an organisational perspective, you will enjoy the Innovation Show Episode 227 with Dr Robert Hogan.
Robert Hogan is an American psychologist and pioneer in the field of personality testing, and is an international authority on personality assessment, leadership, and organizational effectiveness.
Robert joined us on The Innovation Show to share “The Dark side of Leadership” and what makes an effective leader.
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