Evolutionary Psychology and the Organization

Nigel Nicholson’s (1998) “How Hardwired is Human Behavior? ” published in Harvard Business Review, explains the stance of evolutionary psychologists with respect to organizational behavior. According to evolutionary psychologists, the human mentality has never changed. In other words, the mentality of the Stone Age hunter-gatherers continues to define human behavior today, whether it is in the workplace or away. Human beings continue to fight for survival, are threatened by risks that could adversely affect their means of survival, and tend to spread rumors in order to engage in social interaction.

Humans are also driven more by their emotions than by reason, and it is difficult to remold them. However, there are individual differences. Evolutionary psychologists recognize, for example, that certain individuals may be born to become leaders as compared to the majority without the necessary genes for leadership. Still, it is impossible for humans to disown their Stone Age mentality, seeing that evolution has not by now allowed for drastic changes in the human mentality.


Nicholson applies the theory of evolutionary psychology to organizational behavior by advising organizational managers to deal with their subordinates keeping in mind the Stone Age mentality that all human beings have essentially incorporated. In view of the fact that humans are threatened by change because change may threaten their means of survival, for example, Nicholson advises organizational managers to realize that organizational change may only be accepted wholeheartedly by the organization when employees are dissatisfied with the curren state of affairs. Through this realization alone, organizational managers may start to work on employing new methods of introducing organizational change – methods that would prove to be less threatening to the survival instinct of the employees. The theory of evolutionary psychology is, no doubt, very interesting.

Human instincts, such as the basic survival instinct, may not have changed over hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, evolutionary psychologists maintain that there is a limit to the changes in brain circuitry that human beings can work with. All the same, the human instinct refuses to submit to the idea of limitations. I, for instance, would like to believe that there is no limit to changes that a human being may go through with respect to his or her mentality. Self-improvement is, after all, a legitimate answer to the static nature of human mentality.

In addition, nobody can ever deny the power of knowledge and education to change human mentality and human behavior. Religion informs its adherents to maintain the state of absolute peace. While most humans find it impossible to follow this golden rule – and negative emotions do get in the way – a reminder about characters such as Jesus, may take an individual away from negative emotions back to a state of absolute peace. Still, adherents of religion find that it is a constant struggle for them to maintain peace in the face of our primitive mindset.

And, although peace feels much superior to a state of anger, and trust in a divine power feels much better than angst in the face of threatened survival; problems disappear most of the time with trust in the theories of Jesus, for example. It may very well be that evolutionary psychology has underestimated the power of knowledge and education. While the primitive mindset is typically maintained by the majority of people in the world, there are those who have refused to submit to the basic mentality of the Stone Age hunter-gatherers, by finding out about and proving to themselves the effectiveness of new and improved ways of thinking and behaving. Taking such people into account – for example, the faithful followers of Buddha and Jesus, who constantly work on improving their minds and behavior to become one with the Highest Power, God, or Absolute Perfection – we are able to determine that the theory of evolutionary psychology is incomplete.

Evolutionary Psychology and the Organization According to the theory of evolutionary psychology, all information must pass through the screen of emotions before it is processed by reason. Hence, organizational managers must ensure that negative messages are properly filtered before they reach the employees, who are most likely to react with negative emotions to negative messages. Employees may begin to perform poorly if, in their opinion, their work is not adequately appreciated.

Therefore, it is important to employ as performance appraisers those who understand the power of negative emotions, and would be willing to go the extra mile to find the means of imparting negative messages in a positive way. As suggested previously, employees tend to resist change unless they are dissatisfied with a certain aspect of the organization that they believe needs change. Therefore, organizations must ensure that organizational change is made attractive to employees.

Since employees are mainly interested in survival, organizations must ensure that employees realize that organizational change would help them in their survival rather than threaten their survival. Moreover, employees feel that their survival would be threatened if they think creatively and make mistakes in their thinking process.

Organizational managers who desire that their subordinates must think creatively, should therefore make sure that their subordinates know that they would not lose their jobs in the process of thinking creatively, or by making mistakes in their thinking process. Also according to the theory of evolutionary psychology, people often feel more confident than they should be, given the facts of reality. Organizations, according to Nicholson, must therefore seek to routinely examine the work-related challenges faced by managers as well as their subordinates.

It may be that the organization is performing far more poorly than the employees suppose. Reality checks are, therefore, necessary. An overconfident organization would do better by analyzing market reports, just as employees can improve their performance through performance appraisals presented them in a positive way, even when this feedback from the organization contains negative information. Employees love to gossip, also according to Nicholson’s understanding of evolutionary psychology. Organizations must not try to eradicate rumors, according to the author.

Rather, it is best for organizations to tune in to the grapevine in order to ensure that rumors are healthy, and not malicious. It is not for the organization to fight rumors unless they are malicious, because humans will be humans; rather, humans will continue to love gossip no matter what. Human beings, since the beginning of their time on Earth, have tried to beat others in all kinds of competitions. Men are especially disposed to compete in order to increase their level of perceived superiority in the organization. Nicholson advises organizational managers to encourage their subordinates to “refrain from one-upmanship” so as to allow all employees to have the opportunity to feel good about their work. If certain employees are trying to prove their superiority despite the fact that they are not better performers than the others in the organization – the competitive spirit of these employees must be struggled against.

This would allow for all employees to perform to the best of their abilities. Eventually, those who perform the best would become clearly visible in the eyes of the organization. Although organizations are advised to struggle against the competitive spirit of poor to average performers, organizational managers have to recognize that employees would establish status distinctions regardless of the organizations’ attempt to remove such distinctions in order to give all employees an equal chance to succeed.

This recognition on the part of organizational managers is necessary because the struggle against the competitive spirit of poor to average performers must not be so intense as to sap the energy of the organization. Evolutionary psychologists further maintain that people feel most comfortable in smaller groups, especially those that consist of fewer than 150 members. Organizations should, therefore, try not to expect employees to identify with more than one group or department at a time.

What is more, it would be best not to allow the organization to grow too large. If the organization is large to begin with, or grows larger with time, it is prudent to divide up the organization into separate departments or units. Finally, evolutionary psychologists believe that there are people who desire to become leaders as opposed to those who would never wish to lead others. By understanding the difference between the genetic characteristics of those who wish to be leaders as opposed to those who do not – organizations can save themselves from the trouble of making leaders out of those who do not wish to become leaders and would therefore perform rather poorly as leaders. It would be best for organizations to make leaders out of only those who wish to be leaders. Doing otherwise may very well hurt the organization.

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