In Hardwired Humans, author Andrew O’Keeffe shows that we haven’t changed as much as we might think from the monkeys in the zoo
Tell us about the book?
Humans aren’t wired for offices. This book is about taking the lessons from the long journey of human history, where out of that journey it has been only the past 250 years that we have moved out of hunter gatherer and village societies to come and work together in offices and factories.
Two hundred and fifty years is obviously no time at all to alter the way our brains work as a society and a species. There are nine instincts that we carry with us, which are the basis of human behaviour.
An example would be that we are social animals that belong intimately with a small family group of about seven within a clan of 150. The 150 comes from the size of our brain. We are a pretty brainy animal and we get our sense of belonging from being one out of that group. Chimps are also brainy and they live in groups of about 50.
What is the significance of that number for an entrepreneur? As the company grows from 30 to 50 and then gets to about 80 people then the old hands will start saying “It’s not as friendly as it used to be” or “I saw someone in the corridor the other day I have never met, where do they fit in?”. It also means that the organisation will become more complex without the founder realising perhaps why. They will also need to rely on another level of managers that they didn’t need to rely upon. This helps with understanding why people act the way they do and therefore what leaders can do to make informed choices.
What are the strategies leaders can employ?
For emerging businesses it is important to remember the 150 number and understand the importance of approaching that threshold. For large companies it helps them to realise that humans won’t feel a special identity as one of 2000 or 20,000, so it explains why people start siloing or connecting more intimately to their division.
It also helps leaders watch for those signs of internal rivalry and to attend to those destructive tendencies by those people.
What gave you the idea for the book?
Twelve years ago I read an article in Harvard Business Review by Professor Nigel Nicholson of London Business School. I was at that stage in my career as HR director where I was observing the behaviours that frustrate or limit organisational performance, which are uncannily similar across different industries – it doesn’t matter if you are in mining or IT. Executives sitting around the table will say similar things, such as, “It’s difficult to implement change” or “We have a lot technical managers who aren’t good with people management”. I was trying to work out why regardless of company or country these behaviours are common – there must be a common attribute. It is that we are all humans.
The second thing that happened was wonderful timing to see Dr Jane Goodall talking about chimpanzees. Hearing her talk about chimps I couldn’t help but make the connection to humans – so much of what she was describing was common to human behaviour because we are both social animals.
My favourite thing now is to take leaders to the zoo and explain this basic view of humans compared with chimpanzees. We were in Taronga Zoo one day looking at the chimp exhibit. Business leaders always want to know which one is the alpha male out of the 19 chimps there. The keeper looked over and pointed out the alpha male sitting on a rock next to the waterfall. The reason he sits on that rock is because that’s the rock the prior alpha male sat on – it’s like the corner office.
Once we can make sense of that behaviour things become easier for managers. If you look at something like change management, there is a belief, which is a false belief, that people resist change. From a zoological point of view, if we actually resisted change we would still be living in caves.
What actually happens is that people who appear to dislike change are driven by an instinct which is a fear of loss aversion. We are more motivated by the avoidance of loss than the opportunity for gain. If I am working in an organisation and I hear on the grapevine about a possible change, and if I don’t know for sure it is going to be better for me, I am compelled to err on the side of loss. The exciting thing there for managers is that you can influence the way people feel about change by managing that critical initial moment.