Organization and Leadership Theory: An Evolutionary Psychology Perspective

By Spohn, Melinda | Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Organization and Leadership Theory: An Evolutionary Psychology Perspective


Spohn, Melinda, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology


Introduction

Corporate executives have bilked stakeholders out of investment and retirement dollars. Employees report discrimination and harassment in the workplace, and words such as "sex and scandal" are frequently associated with our leaders. These behaviors are not a product of a modern environment. Over millions of years, these behaviors have been "hardwired" into the human brain through the process of natural selection, which favors organisms that successfully adapt to the environment. Theft, discrimination, harassment, and sexual impropriety, as well as other behaviors, are with us today because they served a purpose associated with survival and reproduction in our evolutionary past. Traditional organization and leadership theory has been slow to consider how evolved human behavior impacts organizations and work environments.

Evolutionary Psychology

The science of evolutionary psychology draws upon the fields of psychology, anthropology, biology, and the work of Charles Darwin (Darwin, 1859). Evolutionary psychology considers how the brain processes information in an effort to understand the origins of human behavior, then seeks to reconstruct problems that our ancestors faced in their primitive environments, and the problem-solving behaviors they created to meet those particular challenges. From these reconstructed problem-solving adaptations, the science then attempts to establish the common roots of our ancestral behavior, and how those common behavioral roots are manifested today in the widely scattered cultures of the planet (Buss, 2004; Cosmides & Tooby, 1997).

Organization

Organizations are shaped by their culture, which include assumptions, values, norms, organization members, and their behaviors. They are also shaped by characteristics, which include strategies, technologies, structures, and processes. Where there are people and technologies, there are organizations. According to Daft (1992) there are four key elements that define organization: (a) people and their roles within the organization; (b) the purpose of the organization; (c) the work activities; and (d) a person's working relationship with the organization (p. 7). Everyday our lives are touched by some element of an organization, whether it is a visit to the doctor, a board meeting, or forming alliances on an uninhabited island.

The ABC television series, Survivor, offers an entertaining, yet insightful demonstration of the organizational process. Immediately upon arriving at an uninhabited island, "tribe" members begin to organize in an effort to build shelter and secure food. Individuals who are idle, or lack of teamwork, are considered expendable. Within day's alliances form, and behaviors such as cooperation, reciprocity, trust, and loyalty are considered in establishing a hierarchy. While Survivor is a contrived situation, the behaviors exhibited are an excellent demonstration of how leadership and organization develops (Burnett, 2002).

Primitive Organizational Structure

The propensity to organize appears to be an innate human behavior. Without the skill to organize into productive units, our species would not have survived changes in the environment. Additionally, without the support of the family, the tribe, or community, one would have found it difficult to compete for food, to barter, or to trade. Isolation tends to be a death sentence as it attracts predators (human or animal), and more often than not leads to extinction.

The organizational process evolved in an effort to meet social and environmental change. Nicholson (2000) divides human organization and management into four ages. The first age consisted of hundreds of millennia in which humans spent their lives as semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, which included modest amounts of work and substantial free time. The second age saw the development of agriculture that occurred approximately 10,000 years ago. …

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