Stuck in a time warp


Feeling isolated at work? It’s not your fault, your brain is still wired like that of a caveman to love cosy fireside chats

IF YOU ARE GOING to call your boss a caveman, it is best to have a bit of science in your back pocket, just in case it gets ugly. So a copy of Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters, a new book on leadership by Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja, could come in handy. It attempts to marry where we have come from – primitive and sociable in small tribes – to where we are now, working in huge impersonal corporations. The findings suggest this is a mismatch and, because evolution takes millions of years, the lessons learnt on the African savannah are still with us. This means we are unsuited to working life as it is defined in the early part of the 21st century.

The book promotes the notion of “evolutionary leadership theory”, which posits the idea that the traits of leadership and its flip side, followership, affect the way we recruit people and even elect politicians. There is plenty of evidence “from fish to bees to humans” that tagging behind a competent leader is a smart way for any species to prosper, say the authors.

A central message of the book is that, while nobody wants workplaces to become havens of primitivism, we do seem happiest when our working environments echo facets of ancestral tribal life. So we enjoy a close-knit structure governed loosely by trusted elders in which every member is valued for his or her unique contribution to group living. That is why a high number of us crave more intimacy in the way we interact with our co-workers, bosses and civic leaders, says the book.

Perhaps it is time to take steps to develop a broader view of what makes a great leader, says Ahuja. “There is a remarkable homogeneity about CEOs,” she says. “Many are taller than average and have the classic lantern jawed look. The same can be said of many political leaders.”

So is the book a manifesto for small, ugly people? “No, but it’s more a manifesto for competent people, regardless of their background and looks,” she says.

The book is less clear on whether our preference for telegenic politicians is a function of millions of years of evolution, or the late 20th century obsession with celebrity and image, a trend identifiable from the earliest televised election debates between US presidential candidates John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

“We want people to think about why it is you get a good feeling about certain candidates,” says Ahuja, quoting a statistic that says we make up our minds within 30 seconds of meeting someone or seeing them on TV.

“We are raising awareness of our inherent prejudices when it comes to selecting leaders, in any walk of life. It is important that we are aware of them so we can question them.”

The chief executive, overarching leader model is deeply flawed, she says. “Often CEOs are thrust to the top due to the need for a figurehead, and they find themselves out of their comfort zone, because it is near impossible to find someone with such a broad range of competencies,” she says.

The corollary to this is that there is too much focus on the chief executive, though their role can often be marginal in terms of its effect on company performance.

Why then, do companies continue to over reward them with huge salaries and bonuses?

“The justification often given by the executives is that the company’s share price is doing well so they have earned it,” she says.

“That is a very difficult link to establish. It takes a lot of chutzpah to say ‘I’m worth £10 million a year’ and so the people who are in these roles are self-selected in a sense, because they are the only ones who have the front to be comfortable making that sort of statement. So companies tend to be led by status-hungry, selfish individuals.”

As for the followers, we have been placed at the centre of a world for which we are utterly unprepared. Our ancestors thrived in small tribes and put a high value on personal interaction. In short, cavemen wouldn’t make good middle managers.

“There’s been a great deal of work done on finding the optimal size of organisations,” says Ahuja. “Most of the research suggests that, when the head count goes above 150, it tends to become more difficult to hold things together. There is a need for bureaucracy, and the social element of work breaks down, our lives become less collegiate and more remote. The levels of absenteeism, a key indicator of disillusionment at work, go up sharply at this point.”

The growth of organisations has created a much-maligned modern business phenomenon, the middle manager, who Ahuja suggests is derided from all sides. These people live very stressful, unhealthy lives, burdened with responsibility without authority, and left to answer to other people’s incompetence.

“We don’t deal with hierarchy very well,” says Ahuja. “We have Stone Age brains, so levels of management are not easy for us to understand.”

Another mismatch between our past and present selves is the trust we place in complete strangers. When someone knocks on our door, we open it. When we sell goods on eBay, we expect the customer to send the money.

This makes no sense, unless we take it back to the savannah where everyone we knew was a trusted member of our tribe, usually a blood relative, says the book. Encounters with strangers were extremely rare. It is plausible that our brains are not geared up to deal with one-off interactions; we are conditioned to believe we are likely to meet that stranger again. Our instinct, therefore, is to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The book suggests that people are more likely to trust and help strangers if they trigger certain group cues. “One experiment involving secret cameras showed that participants who had previously been asked about their sporting allegiances were much more likely to stop and help and injured individual if he was wearing a shirt from their team,” she says.

“On four out of five occasions, Manchester United fans stopped to help an actor wearing their team’s shirt. If the actor wore a Liverpool shirt the fans tended to walk on by.”

This leaves the door open to salesmen, who are experts in the “chameleon effect”: mirroring your behaviour, using language and seeking out the things you might have in common, as a way of building trust.

It’s just one of the many areas of life in which we are prisoners of our past, condemned to elect tall politicians, and reward selfishness. It’s enough to bring out the caveman in all of us.