Every time I go to the zoo, I spend the longest time in front of the chimp enclosure. These creatures are thoroughly engrossing to watch not least because – being our closest genetic relative – they act a lot like humans. In fact, certain business leaders, as part a program to help them become more effective managers, now visit the zoo to observe chimpanzees in order to better appreciate the role basic animal instincts play in everyday workplace behaviour.
Someone who talks about these basic animal/human instincts and their relevance to how we are in the office is Andrew O’Keeffe, who shared his insights on this topic in a radio interview last year. Andrew is the author of Hardwired Humans, and will be both presenting at our Happiness & Its Causes conference in March and leading a workshop.
The theory Andrew bases his work on is that for most of the 200,000 years of human history, we have lived our lives predominantly outside in small family groups within clans of a certain size, usually no bigger than 150 members. Conversely our transition from savannah into offices and factories has been much more recent, beginning around 250 years ago, equivalent to just a few seconds before midnight on the evolutionary clock.
In other words, the pace of change in our external world has far outstripped our brain’s adaptive capabilities. So even though our habitat today is vastly different to what it was previously, our nature as human beings has stayed pretty much the same.
For Andrew, who observed over a number of years during his own professional life that many different organisations struggle with very similar challenges, discovering this theory 13 years ago, which is based on the work of Professor Nigel Nicholson, was a revelation, “a jaw dropping ‘wow’ moment taking away the mystery of human behaviour.”
Andrew explains that nine instincts still drive why we do what we do, and that these have developed on the basis that we are social animals. For some animals, their survival strategy is that they’re strong, or fast or that they can fly. Ours is that we like hanging out together. Likewise chimps due to their level of complexity, hierarchy and group size are another great example of a social species.
Thus the purpose of visiting the zoo is to observe the many social characteristics we share with our ape relatives, for example, grooming. This is what facilitates connection between individuals. Chimps groom physically by picking off each other ticks, mites and other creepy crawlies. We groom verbally by using our highly developed vocal capacity to engage in bonding chitchat.
Business leaders can do a lot with this knowledge. Indeed Andrew reports enthusiastically on two success stories involving Flight Centre and Philips. Both used this framework for understanding what makes people tick to guide the implementation of various strategies that have significantly improved their respective workplace practices, making for happier and more productive employees.
Given most of us spend the majority of our adult life in an office, let’s hope all the world’s bosses are listening.