Mark van Vugt is an Evolutionary Psychologist. Evolutionary Psychology is the study of our evolution as a species and how that has determined how our brains function and our behavior. Ronald Giphart is a novelist.
The two authors ran across each other at the university where Vugt teaches – and where Giphart was visiting as a creative-in-residence. Giphart was intrigued by Vugt’s work and Vugt needed a better way of explaining his thinking. They came up with the term ‘mismatch.’ This book was a natural partnership to explain evolutionary psychology in a readable way.
Mismatch explores the ways in which our “Stone Age Brains” were matched for our ancient ancestors’ environment but now sometimes glitch up in our current environment.
You see, evolution always relates to the current environment in which a species lives. An individual or group that is better suited or more adaptable to a particular environment will outperform and out reproduce the less suited. That is, until the environment changes. Then different individuals or groups will have the upper hand.
It’s interesting to consider, as this book does, all sorts of mismatches we have created for ourselves in our daily lives. Food and supermarkets are an obvious one. Our food no longer runs away so that we have to chase it and expend calories in the pursuit. We can just go buy a box of sugary cereal and eat that. The results are diabetes and tooth decay.
I am just going to focus on the part of the book that covers our work environment.
We humans have dramatically changed our environment. We are no longer wandering across the African savannah in small groups as our ancestors did for most of the last 200,000 years. We were perfected for that environment, not the one in which we currently find ourselves.
Now we commute to work, punch a clock, get paid money for our labor, manage or have a manager, job descriptions, performance reviews, strategic plans, budgets, paychecks, and bonus programs all of which did not exist while we (and our brains) were evolving. Biologically and neurologically, we are still the same creatures who traveled in small groups, shared food, and stuck together for protection from much stronger and faster predators.
Evolution happens minimally and incrementally over at least a dozen or so generations and more likely tens of thousands of years. We have not yet begun to adapt to these new circumstances that we have created for ourselves.
Genetically, we are lagging far behind. We are hardwired to view, process, and engage with the world in ways we need to understand better so we can adapt our work lives to ourselves, as real human beings.
Our fellow human beings are, in large part, what we have evolved to deal with. The most common and consistent feature of our environment 100,000 years ago when our ancestors traveled together through the savannah and primordial forests was the other people in our groups. This has not changed. What has changed is the way we interact with each other due to the business operating systems we have invented.
“In the savannah there were no managers or middle managers. Decisions were taken by the group, on the basis of consensus, not on the basis of hierarchy. Modern organizations have become excessively formalized and institutionalized, which goes against our small group instincts. Studies show that employees need a great deal of autonomy, a primeval preference for self-employment. People want to be left alone, they do not want some process supervisor breathing down their neck. The same studies reveal that employees consider autonomy and social contacts more important than pay. Our desires have not changed only the circumstances in which we operate.” – Ronald Giphart and Mark van Vugt
The good news is, we CAN better adapt our workplaces to ourselves. This will enable us to operate more in sync with how we are designed.
We thrive in groups of around 100 to 150 people. It is impossible for us to apprehend companies that are too big for our social brainsWL Gore, a global life sciences company
When a unit grows to a size of 150, a new unit can be set up that does the same work. Everything in Gore is set up in small groups that are responsible for a segment of a process. The groups choose their leaders. Every team has a leader, but he or she is chosen by the group itself on the basis of questions and requirements which were also answered by our ancestors: “Who should I follow?” “Who is best able to help me?” and “Who will teach me the most?”
The Brazilian company Semco likewise works according to this ancestral philosophy and is also successful. Network governance is a method to cancel out mismatch. Some governance experts believe that this is the organizational model of the future, but in fact it stems from our ancient past.
We are not homo-sapiens, thinking is not our strongest suit. We are rarely all that logical. We are homo-collaborens, the collaborative primate. We have such a strong influence on each other that evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson says; that the smallest human unit is not an individual, it is a small group. We can’t survive without each other and as the african concept of Ubuntu suggests we actually call each other into being. In different groups with different people I am a different person. As Margaret Wheatley says this does not make me inauthentic it makes me quantum.
“What is crucial is the relationship created between two or more elements. Systems influence individuals, and individuals call forth systems. It is the relationship that evokes the present reality. Which potential becomes real depends on the people, the events, and the moment. Prediction and replication are therefore, impossible. While this is no doubt unsettling, it certainly makes for a more interesting world. People stop being predictable and become surprising. Each of us is a different person in different places. This does not make us inauthentic; it merely makes us quantum. Not only are we fuzzy; the whole universe is.” Margaret Wheatley ‘Leadership and the New Science’
We are designed by evolution to sense what needs doing and to want to help our groups. We are descendants of the highly collaborative people. We carry those same collaborative, generous, and compassionate genes that made our ancestors groups successful. We have everything we need to be high performing groups and organizations. We need to reinvent those organizations in a more human way. Our ancient past is the key to our best future.
Cheers for Friday,
Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter