Article: (R)evolutionary Thinking- Organizational puzzles that Evolutionary Psychology can solve

Employee Relations

(R)evolutionary Thinking- Organizational puzzles that Evolutionary Psychology can solve

Insights from Evolutionary Psychology can provide new ways of looking at organizational structures, processes, and development and knowing the default impulses evolution has left us with allows us to use them for the best organizational performance and to guard against their going astray.
(R)evolutionary Thinking- Organizational puzzles that Evolutionary Psychology can solve

We have not changed in the last 10,000 years. Before some wise-guy takes this as an admission of how out-of-date HR professionals are, let me explain that my reference is to the basic ways in which humans think. Physiologically, our brains have not undergone significant changes for at least 35,000 years1. Evolutionary Psychology (EP) tells us that "human cognitive architecture resembles a large heterogeneous network of functionally specialized computational devices. Because biological evolution is a slow process, and the modern world has emerged within an evolutionary eye-blink, these devices are inherited from the past and remain functionally specialized to solve the particular distribution of problems that were characteristic of humans’ hunter-gatherer past, rather than those of the modern world."

As Edward O. Wilson wrote, "We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology."3 Certainly, the modern business enterprise, much of whose operating structures, processes, and practices are premised on a mythical homo economicus, is caught well and truly in Wilson’s cross-hairs. Until we realize that "our modern skulls have a stone age mind"4, our policies and schemes of motivation will be Sisyphean efforts, doomed to come crashing down as soon as we stop our futile efforts to prop them up.

Recognizing the evolutionary origin of our impulses doesn’t mean catering to them (or even accepting them as given) any more than recognizing that the flood-prone nature of a river necessitates allowing its floods to ravage the countryside. Just as recognizing the potential for irrigation, power generation or damage that a river may cause can help planners channel its waters constructively, knowing the default impulses evolution has left us with guides us how to use them for the best organizational performance, and to guard against their going astray. A frequently repeated movie theme, for me best-captured in The Dirty Dozen, comes to mind as another analogy. A bunch of half-crazy, impulsive, military criminals is chosen for what is a near-impossible mission behind German lines in WW II. That even such unpromising material can be turned into war heroes owes much to their tough but shrewd leader, Major John Reisman (and a miracle of Hollywood). HR leaders, who would like to channel the myriad potent, hidden, and unconscious impulses that stir employees, face no less a challenge.

Evolutionary Psychology  can be very valuable in making us aware of at least some of our built-in biases that lead to poor selections

Several puzzles about the way in which people behave in organizations, sometimes against their own rational self-interest, and wonderfully designed (and, again, the most rational) schemes and structures that just don’t seem to work, got answered for me as I studied the fast-growing field of EP. I have picked just a few instances where insights from EP gave me new ways of looking at organizational structures, processes, and development. For those who find this approach useful and would like to explore EP in greater depth, I have appended a more than usually copious set of reference notes. Hopefully, even HR practitioners who just stop with reading this column will not, when they see people behaving irrationally in future, just give up and say that "out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made."5

Dunbar Dictates Design 

Whenever young entrepreneurs meet me for guidance, one of the questions they ask most frequently is, "How will we know when it is time to abandon the free-wheeling informal set-up we have and go for a more structured, rule-bound way of doing things?" More mature and successful entrepreneurs look back and ask wistfully, "What can we do to recapture the heady time when we all knew each other, had few boundaries and could innovate at breakneck speed without having to worry about some rule or wandering onto someone else’s turf?" The answer to both questions is surprisingly definite: when you have around 150 employees, you will no longer be able to manage them with the same face-to-face informality.6 Your choices are clear: either reconcile yourself to a more rule-bound, bureaucratic form of organization or slough off another independent organizational entity which keeps its count within the 150 limit. The number was proposed and popularized by the Evolutionary Psychologist Robin Dunbar and is named Dunbar’s number after him.  

EP premises that one of the key evolutionary advantages enjoyed by primates was their ability to organize socially and it was this need that prompted the evolution of large brains. Within primates, brain (specifically neocortex) size correlated with the maximum group size that the species could live in and maxed out at 150 for modern humans (Anatomically Modern Humans or AMH actually date back 200,000 years). Dunbar showed that social groupings averaging 150 have characterized the most effective human groups from the time of hunter-gatherer communities (extending back tens of thousands of years), through Neolithic villages (6,500-5,500 BC), the Roman army maniple (350-100 BC), army companies in WW II and coming down to the size of a Gore-tex factory in our own times.7 W. L. Gore is a legend for many reasons other than its factory size limits but surely its insistence on preserving direct, one-on-one communication is part of its success mix.8 Of course, just having a clear, quantitative limit for maximum unit size doesn’t dictate the specific form the organization takes, which can be determined by the demands of strategy, culture, people profiles or technology, provided each unit is given genuine autonomy and an empowered leader.

The benefits of smaller unit sizes are lost unless the work architecture provides opportunities for lots of face-to-face communication. "We did not evolve in front of computer screens. Therefore, we are better able to solve problems, exchange nuanced information, and develop trust through face-to-face interaction."9 Votaries of the virtual organization and work-mainly-from-home, please note the in-person intra-group interaction demanded by EP.

Longing for Long Leaders

Perhaps in no other domain do we make as expensive mistakes as in the choice of corporate leaders. EP can be very valuable in making us aware of at least some of our built-in biases that lead to poor selections. It is fairly common knowledge that people prefer to have taller men in leadership roles, whether as managers, military leaders or even as the US President! What is not so well known is that this bias originated in our days as hunter-gatherers when height was a useful surrogate for the physical fitness and strength, which were obviously essential leadership requirements during those  times.10 Equally insidious are our preferences for leaders who have facial profiles we are hard-coded to associate with leadership11 but which, in fact, do not correlate with leader performance12. There could be many ways in which we can counter these biases. The limited purpose of this column is to recognize their existence as part of our natures so that we can plan counter-measures.

Until we realize that "our modern skulls have a stone age mind", our policies and schemes of motivation will be Sisyphean efforts, doomed to come crashing down as soon as we stop our futile efforts to prop them up

Appearance is not the only trap we fall into both at the time of selection and in the leeway we give to leaders in action. Overconfidence has dug the grave of many a corporate leader as well as of the corporation he (yes, it’s usually a he) has led. Once again, this is a carry-over from what worked in pre-historic times which proves to be a mismatch for the modern organization. "… for ancestral groups, the opportunity cost of failing to assume competence from displays of confidence would have been greater than the costs incurred by providing aspiring leaders with sufficient latitude to test their ostensible skills and abilities. However, as modern business environments are essentially dominance hierarchies in which high-ranking individuals can unilaterally influence organizational decision-making, leadership overconfidence is today less effectively observed and regulated from the bottom up."13

One reason it is so difficult to see through the facade of apparent competence many leaders display is that they genuinely believe in it themselves.

This too is an evolutionary vestige of the need to deceive others most efficaciously14. Similarly, the drive for dominance goes even further back, to our ancient primate heritage13, and is a trait frequently encountered in modern corporate leaders. The negative concomitants of this drive include unhealthy means of acquiring power (such as playing to the gallery, information hoarding, politicking, destructive competition with rivals, and nepotism), abuse of power once it is acquired and asymmetric payoffs to the leaders and their close associates compared to the rest15. In these cases, checks are not only needed at the stage of selection but during ongoing assessment and in the systemic measures that moderate unbridled leader-power.

Tropical Teams

Those of us who have worked in Multi-National Corporations have often heard our overseas colleagues lament: "These Indians are brilliant individual contributors and do very well in their own small cliques but they just can’t seem to get rid of their individual and parochial priorities when they have to work in much bigger groups and put the larger interests first." Well, it turns out their unjustified stereotyping might have a grain of EP truth buried in it. Recent research has shown that the balance between individualism and collectivism correlates "with latitude: humans have smaller, more inward-looking, strongly bonded communities around the equator, and larger, more outward-looking, individualistic ones nearer the poles."7 Apparently, this was due to the pathogen-load being much higher in the tropics leading to the selection for a genetic predilection towards small groups and avoidance of other communities.16 Before anyone rushes out to buy antibiotics as the means of raising teamwork among Indians, let me reemphasize my opening caveat that “genetic influence on behavior is just that — an influence or contributing factor, not something that is pre-programmed and deterministic.”17

More immediately usable is what EP has to tell us about making small teams more effective. For instance, many team designers, especially in the new age industries, are intent on standardizing all roles within teams in the interests of making individual members totally interchangeable. This ignores the advantages of a transactive memory system which is a natural advantage gleaned by social groups extending far before even human hunter-gatherer bands. "Once such a system exists, each individual member only needs to store information for which they are responsible, easing the memory load on each member but increasing the total amount of information available to the group."18 Instead of designing teams and jobs on the lines of the Clone Troopers from the Star Wars movies, we should pick up team design ideas from the Avengers series which provide much greater scope for building transactive memory in the team.

Another important insight EP gives us about building teams is how disruptive thoughtlessly designed individual incentives can be to teamwork and organizational performance. Jonathan Haidt concludes his analysis of just such a short-sighted focus on the selfish side of human nature by writing: "So the next time someone suggests changing the organizational chart, incentives, or culture of your company to… appeal to selfish interests, ask them if they have thought about the full range of motives evolution has bequeathed to our complex species.

People are not just selfish. It might make Ayn Rand roll over in her grave to put it this way, but corporations and capitalism depend on the invisible band, as well as the invisible hand."19

The Intentionality of Great HR Leaders

HR veterans often debate what sets a great HR leader apart from the more pedestrian types or from other CXOs. I believe a part of the answer is provided by EP through the powerful concept of intentionality. 

Every conscious creature knows its own mind and this is called the first order of intentionality. Having a belief about the mental state of the person one is interacting with takes us to the second order. Children reach this second level of intentionality by about five years of age as (it is inferred) did our australopithecine ancestors more than four million years ago. Higher orders of intentionality follow a (theoretically) infinite sequence of recursive mind states. The third level, for instance, is what I believe about your belief about what I or someone else believes. Adult humans top out around the fifth order of intentionality, with a small proportion of the population reaching or crossing the sixth level. 

Dunbar provides an interesting illustration. "Consider the case of the audience watching Shakespeare’s Othello. … What gives Shakespeare’s play its bite is the fact that Iago is able to persuade Othello that Cassio reciprocates Desdemona’s feelings, thereby creating a romantic triangle and raising the stakes high enough for all of us to be gripped by the drama (especially when, with the benefit of spectator-sight, we are aware of Iago’s scheming plan). At this point, of course, the audience is having to work at fifth-order intentionality, and is thus at the natural limits for the great majority of the population. But, in putting this story together, Shakespeare himself has to go one level higher than his audience, to sixth order ... I suggest that this might explain why the capacity to enjoy good literature is a widespread human universal, but the ability to compose good literature is not – storytelling demands social cognitive competencies that are beyond the normal range for the great majority of the population."20

I am going to be brash enough to propose that pioneering people-policy framers face the same intentionality-level challenge as creative authors. They have to anticipate the impacts of their policies on their employee audiences in terms of what they will believe other actors in the corporate drama will believe (and do) based on beliefs at several removes from themselves. Here, at last, we have a unique test for checking and developing CHRO thinking capability. Any takers? 



  1. Simon Neubauer, Jean-Jacques Hublin and Philipp Gunz, The evolution of modern human brain shape, Science Advances, Vol. 4, no. 1, 24 January 2018.

  2. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, Better than Rational: Evolutionary Psychology and the Invisible Hand, The American Economic Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, May 1994. 

  3. Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth, Liveright; 2013.

  4. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer, Center for Evolutionary Psychology, 1997.

  5. Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Second Edition, Princeton University Press, 2013.

  6. Kevin J. Delaney, Something weird happens to companies when they hit 150 people, Quartz, 29 November 2016.

  7. Robin Dunbar, Human Evolution, Pelican Books, 2016.

  8. Alan Deutschman, The Fabric of Creativity, Fast Company, 1 December 2004.

  9. Stephen Colarelli, Design organizations compatible with human nature, This View of Business: How Evolutionary Thinking Can Transform the Workplace, The Evolution Institute, 5 September 2017.

  10. Nancy M. Blaker, Irene Rompa, Inge H. Dessing, Anne F. Vriend, Channah Herschberg and Mark van Vugt, The height leadership advantage in men and women: Testing evolutionary psychology predictions about the perceptions of tall leaders, Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 16(1) 17-27, 2013.

  11. Mark Van Vugt and Allen E. Grabo, The Many Faces of Leadership: An Evolutionary-Psychology Approach, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10 December 2015.

  12. Janka I. Stoker, Harry Garretsen, Luuk J. Spreeuwers, The Facial Appearance of CEOs: Faces Signal Selection but Not Performance, PLoS ONE 11 (7), 27 July 2016.

  13. Mark van Vugt and Richard Ronay, The evolutionary psychology of leadership: Theory, review, and roadmap, Organizational Psychology Review, Vol. 4(1) 74-95, 2014.

  14. William von Hippel and Robert Trivers, The evolution and psychology of self-deception,  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34, 1-56, 2011.

  15. Art Padilla, Robert Hogan and Robert B. Kaiser, The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, vulnerable followers, and conducive environments, The Leadership Quarterly 18, 176-194, 2007.

  16. Corey L. Fincher, Randy Thornhill, Damian R. Murray and Mark Schaller, Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism, Proceedings of the Royal Society. B 275, 1279-1285, 2008.

  17. Robert Plomin, John C. DeFries, Valerie S. Knopik and Jenae M. Neiderhiser, Behavioral Genetics, Worth Publishers, 2012.

  18. T Kameda, M Van Vugt and R S Tindale,. Evolutionary group dynamics, in J. D. Wright (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (2nd edition). Oxford (in press).

  19. Jonathan Haidt, The CEO of Sears Fails His Company by Believing in Ayn Rand and the Invisible Hand, Economics, 25 July 2015.

  20. Robin Dunbar, Mind the Gap; or Why Humans are Not Just Great Apes, Article in Proceedings of the British Academy, December 2008.


Read full story

Topics: Employee Relations, Life @ Work

Did you find this story helpful?



How do you envision AI transforming your work?

Your opinion matters: Tell us how we're doing this quarter!

Selected Score :