How to Work with Our Stone-Aged Brain, Not Against It

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Homo sapiens (humans) have existed for at least 200,000 years, although our ancestry can be traced even earlier to 2 million years back.

This means that, for the most part of human existence, we have lived, survived, and reproduced on the Savannah, and have evolved to be good at doing so.

This also means we’re better adapted to live on the Savannah than in today’s urban jungle. Despite living in fast-paced contemporary cities, as the eminent evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides say, “Our modern skulls house a stone-age mind.”

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Yes, we’re still cavewomen and cavemen deep down inside, figuring out how on earth we should navigate this ‘weird’ modern world.

This mismatch is responsible for a wide range of psychological eccentricities, such as why we would have a sweet tooth even though it harms us, why office romance inadvertently happens even though we know we should try and avoid them, and why we can be psychologically biased.

This is where we need to pay attention to our primary instincts that have helped us survive for so long, because they won’t go away and denying them only makes us miserable.

We can’t survive alone and we have fundamental human instincts that teach us  how to live in social communities on the Savannah. Understanding how evolution works can teach us a thing or two, not only about how to live with our stone-aged minds, but also how to harness it to our advantage, especially in the workplace.

The Wisdom and Logic of Evolved Leadership and Followership

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In the realm of leadership, one often overlooked concept is the importance of followership. Humans are programmed to be followers as they cannot survive being solitary. Since our solo-going ancestors in the Savannah often died, those who followed thrived. When you have followers, you need leaders. Thus, the rise of followership also gave rise to leadership.

Social status has always drawn people to their leaders. And back in the day of the ancestral tribe, high status leaders tended to be big men, or chiefs.

Being physically strong was a natural requirement. A leader would have to rise the ranks and become an alpha by outmuscling his competition, participating in and leading successful hunts and invasions, and protecting his people.

But, over the years, the ability to wrestle an animal has been replaced with running a company.

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In line with our evolved tendencies, corporations seem to prefer hiring taller and healthy-looking studs as CEOs. In 2005, more than 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs stood 6’2” or taller, compared with 4% percent of the general US population.

According to evolutionary leadership expert, Professor Mark van Vugt, “a taller person would have been a more formidable warrior in hand-to-hand combat, and a better peacekeeper.”

In organisational teams, the decision to appoint someone as a leader can unfortunately be swayed by seemingly irrelevant traits like height and looks, rather than relevant and critical traits like task-based abilities.

The mismatch is thus that our brains tend use criteria from the Savannah that no longer applies today. Yet stature hardly plays a role in the keen intellect, decision-making capabilities, and relationship skills that’re at the heart of good leadership.

Therefore, using our instinctive assessments to choose leaders can be disastrous.

The most successful and effective leaders today have a combination of qualities that not only appeal to the positive elements of our ancestral psychology but are also task-related competencies.

Optimus Prime sure knew a thing or two about leadership, and many of these leadership qualities have an evolutionary basis to them.

At the same time, individuals like Optimus Prime are undeniably attractive as leaders simply because of their physical presence, height, looks, and demeanor, which appeal to our evolved instincts to choose such individuals as leaders.

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Another insight is that we tend to overlook competent women when choosing leaders, since our evolved instincts tend to make us assume that leaders should be male. There is increasing evidence that highly capable women are as up to task in leadership as men.

By being mindful of how we tend to be drawn irrationally to charismatic and good-looking (and male) leaders who may not actually be competent, we can make better choices of who we want to be led by.

Importantly, we also can’t be leaders in every realm. More likely, we may lead in one project but follow other leaders who’re in charge of others.

Followers have a responsibility to be good and effective followers too. If a leader is effective, support them rather than compete to overthrow them.

Focus on Exchanging Less Money and More Favours

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Humans (and other social animals) are evolved with an irresistible urge for reciprocity. It’s deeply ingrained in our human nature.

We’ve discussed the principle of reciprocity, which states that people naturally dislike feeling indebted and instinctively want to return favours.

Markets are places where people can get goods and services that they need from people who can provide them, and people must offer something in exchange for those goods and services.

Humans operated through social markets for the most part of our existence. The invention of money is a relatively very new phenomenon.

Using a money market mindset when a social market mindset is more relevant is a major faux pas.

Think about this scenario: One day, your best friend calls you and says, “Hey, I need some help moving some furniture.” Being best friends, you make the long trip over to his place and spend two hours moving some heavy chairs and tables. After the work is done, your friend says, “Thanks for your help, buddy! I calculated the time and distance it took you to get here as well as the work you did, so here’s $65.70 based on your utility.”

Most people would find such a gesture strange, if not insulting. Money isn’t a good way to show appreciation here.

Yet, it’s not that money markets are always inferior to social markets. Money markets exist because they’re indeed more efficient than social markets.

However, money markets are more apt as a means to transact among strangers, especially when deep trust is not built yet or you do not anticipate dealing with such individuals regularly in the long run.

The more acquainted two individuals become over time, the more they trust each other. As they increasingly enter a social market to mutually deal, they will get what they need from each other through a cycle of obligations, favours, and indebtedness.

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Social markets thus create opportunities to strengthen relationships. Rather than split the bill, close friends often take turns paying at the dinner table, creating opportunities to meet again and signalling that they aren’t assessing their friendship value down to the cents.

Human resource managers can take heed from these insights to breed greater employee trust, satisfaction, and loyalty. Rather than focusing on monetary salary alone for compensation, create a reward package that includes non-monetary returns.

These can include benefits to employees framed as favours, such as scholarships for training and development. Staff who feel that their employers nurture their development are more likely to feel appreciative, work harder, and give back to the company.

Green Means Go

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Our mind was designed to work optimally in ancestral and largely rural conditions. Thus, we might be more positively attuned to environments that resembled the world our ancestors lived in.

Such environments included a combination of natural foliage, open landscapes, and abundant sources of water. These natural elements are present in the Savannah.

Our liking for such sceneries still persists in us, as studies show that we feel more positive and experience better mood when we’re immersed in environments that resemble the Savannah. Our brains and perceptions are simply wired to find these sights and sounds appealing.

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Indeed, despite the necessity of working in grey, concrete, urban buildings and offices, people often try to decorate their cubicles and rooms with plants and aquariums.

Office space architects can therefore take a leaf out of the book of evolutionary psychology to guide their office designs. Or they might already know this somehow, but evolutionary psychology now provides the scientific basis behind people’s penchants for Savannah elements.

By injecting Savannah elements into our office spaces, we may be able to raise work performance, such as productivity and creativity, improve the mood of staff, and also increase overall work satisfaction.

We often wonder why humans behave irrationally. However, evolutionary psychology suggests that a deep-seated rationality underlies our psychological quirks.

There’re many other takeaways to be had from contemplating our caveman needs, such as the importance of focusing on social relationships at work, having work-family balance, and taking the time to be active to counteract our desk-bound office lives.

Taken together, paying attention to our stone-aged brains, rather than working against it, can pay huge dividends.

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