Executive Sapiens Sapiens

By José Luis Alvarez. Vice-Dean at Instituto de Empresa

16 July 2003

Many of today’s accepted management strategies are totally alien to Mankind’s origins.

Show a group of children photos of different ecologies – rainforests, deserts, mountains, the sea and the African savannah – most will be drawn by the final example. This is pure nostalgia for our original environment. In July the newspapers reported on the discovery in Ethiopia of the most ancient remains of one of our species, Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Dating back 160,000 years, these ancestors later migrated from Africa towards Europe about 70,000 years ago, thus initiating the first true globalization process. As a result of this common origin, there is greater genetic similarity between humans than, for example, different families of chimpanzees. Human nature is truly global and uniform, as well as firmly established, because there has been no substantial genetic variation since then.

Our forebears lived in clans of hunter-gatherers, grouping together several families to reach a total of 100-150 people. Within these groups was a marked division of work along gender lines, clear status differences, several further reduced circles within each clan and strong leadership - the result of permanent competition.

The significant thing from the business-management viewpoint is that while we are a species that survived thanks to a capacity for collective action of an economic nature; i.e., hunting, this does not necessarily mean we are especially well prepared for working in such organizations as exist nowadays. Homo Sapiens Sapiens was adapted to a highly specific territory - the African savannah - populated by extremely rapid predators competing for the same objective in a place where any error could prove much more fatal than, for example, a dismissal. Put another way, our genetic makeup was determined for a certain environment, one that no longer exists for the vast majority of humanity.

Managers should be aware that many strategies currently attempted in business management go against our deep-rooted instincts. For example, it is a myth that we can coordinate collective action without leaders, or that education and training can produce leaders. The truth is that there will always be individuals who aspire to exercise control and who possess greater energy than others, and they are the ones who will become leaders.

[*D Flat organizations stretch the limits of our instincts, as there will always be a search for status and distinction *]

It also stretches the limits of our instincts to attempt to create flat organizations, as there will always be a search for status and distinction. Nor is it feasible to eliminate politics from companies, as there will always be a tendency to exchange favors and form circles aimed at mutual protection. Equally impossible is eradication of our appetite for rumors and gossip, since any information may increase the chances of survival. Likewise the idea of getting employees to identify with a great company, when their feelings are really focused on that reduced core of colleagues with whom they interact daily. These and other instincts enhanced the probability of survival in the Stone Age.

A greater number of differences between the contemporary ideal organizational model – based on rationality and the control of emotions – and the genetic endowment of Homo Sapiens Sapiens exist in the decision-making process. We are pretty hopeless when it comes to large-scale calculations (that’s why we invented computers), but no machine can equal us when it comes to rapidly evaluating unexpected risks. We have a relatively poor memory, even among well-educated people. We only possess what we need in order to know our family group well and a further 150 people reasonably well; yet we are great at recalling stories, such as our grandfathers’ heroic deeds, or hunting tales (genetically, we are just as exaggerated as our ancestors), that contain tacit knowledge that may be of use in similar situations.

Our bad memory is offset by an outstanding capacity for classification, to detect “us” and “them,” our clan and other tribes; i.e., to identify those who may prove dangerous. And we are highly competent in those skills a hunter requires: recognizing analogous situations (this is why case studies occupy pride of place on business management courses); planning actions to take; a knack for throwing competitors off the scent or deceiving prey; tactical flexibility and orientation towards action (in an environment where doing nothing was nearly always more risky than doing something).

Moreover, as is studied on negotiation courses, we are more inclined to prefer an uncertain benefit to a certain loss (in the Stone Age, certain losses frequently constituted a fatal outcome); and an optimistic belief in our intuition, which is nearly always unjustified.

Although we are not molded to work within our organizations in accordance with these predispositions, executives must be aware that they can fully command such situations as organizational change, crises, the launch of a new company, renewal of the management team, or mergers and acquisitions, whenever fear, protecting loved ones and action-related excitement release adrenaline and could throw us back to behavior patterns befitting our origins. These are examples of situations where what is most needed is logic, objectivity and calculated reasoning.

It is curious that our species, so intuitive and emotional, should have named itself Sapiens Sapiens. This must be in order to indicate our capacity, twice over, for exaggeration.


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