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Human Instincts in the Workplace

Our second Brunch N Learn Workshop was about Human instincts and how they play a role in organisations today.

Most organisations from common challenges, because we are employing humans. The common challenges businesses face include;

  • Silos and internal competition
  • Giving negative feedback
  • Implementing change
  • The power of the informal grapevine
  • Performance appraisal system.

When a baby is born, they are pre-programmed to have a pattern of natural behaviours specific to their species. Humans are no different, there is no question that we are born with a series of behaviours, the unknown is what these behaviours are, what the pattern is and what they look like.

We come with a package of natural behaviours and instincts that we developed hundreds of years ago on the African savannah. When the industrial revolution happened 250 years ago, we went from tribes to civilised colonies in the blink of an eye and as much as we have changed since then these natural behaviours and instincts are still with us today, some more helpful than others!

If we look back at where we come from, the environment and the situations that we lived in, humans are not a very strong species when compared to the other species around us, but we have been an incredibly successful species.

What do you think has made us so successful?

Skill sets such as communication, learning to adapt, being a social species and working together has given us success. As individuals, we are vulnerable but when we come together, we become strong.

Because we are a social species, we weren’t alone, we were in groups, our immediate circle, our family of around 7 and then our larger circle, our tribe of around 150. We thrive in this dynamic, it provides a sense of belonging and structure.

The framework of Human Instincts

This concept was first described by Nigel Nicholson from London Business School. He identified a framework of 9 core instincts that we are born with, these are not traits that we can get rid of, they are part of what makes us what we are.

The first core instinct, Emotion before Reason.

We believe ourselves to be very logical but fundamentally we are not. We process using our emotions first and then move on to logic.

Imagine walking here alone at night and you hear footsteps behind you.

What is your first reaction, without thinking what do you notice you are feeling?

Is it fear, worry? Is your heart racing? Do you feel alert to what is happening around you?

What would your reaction be if you speed up and hear the footsteps also speed up?

You might feel panic and your fight or flight response kicks in.

Our logical thinking processes information a lot slower than our emotions, this behaviour is designed to keep us alive.

To give an example of the difference between our emotional processing and our logical process. You’re standing on the side of the road waiting to cross and when you step out a car horn blares. You will jump back before you even realise what is happening, this is your emotional process.

If we processed logically first, you would hear the horn, need to identify it as a car horn, think that the sounds usually mean there is a car and that means danger and then step back onto the curb. Realistically in the time that it would that your logical brain to figure it out, you would probably have already been hit by the car.

These are not the only time that we use emotion before logic, we make so many decisions in our day-to-day lives based on emotions without even realising that we are doing it. If you take a step back and properly consider why we make the decisions we do, you will probably find that you have emotional reasons for most of them.

  • Emotion before reason instinct

This can play a huge role in your organisation and how your team reacts in different situations.

For example image: There is a small business and one day the boss came in and said, we have some news, we want everyone to stop work and meet in the break room.

Now, what do you think the employee’s reactions were to this statement?

They were worried and unsure of what was about to happen, questioning are their jobs safe.

What happened was, that the boss had good news, they had had a great year and gave everyone $500 to spend in their local community.

We do not suspend judgement in these situations until we have all the information, we need to decide how we feel about the situation, and when we don’t have all the information, we automatically assume that it is negative. We do this because effectively we are screening for danger.

What the boss could have done differently in this situation, was to say we have GOOD news, please stop work, and meet in the break room. This has a completely different tone to it and allows people to know that this is good, there is nothing to worry about and makes them feel comfortable.

  1. Snap judgements we make and why

We do this because we need to try and make sense of what is happening, we have a tone of information that come in all around us and we need to make sense of it all, we do this by classifying things.

Our classification is very binary, it is very basic and we are essentially looking for

  • Is this safe or not safe?
  • Is this for me or against me?

For example, quickly glimpse at the below image.

Couple sitting opposite each other in small restaurant, waiter standing and socialising, relaxed and friendly, customer service

What is your first impression of the situation?

Do you feel happy, relaxed and comfortable?

This is what we are scanning for and how fast we take in the information around us. If the photo was of an unhappy customer, we would have gotten a very different feeling from it. It takes just a fraction of a second to classify situations.

An example of how effective this is without us even realising we are doing it is Mike Smith, CEO of ANZ Bank at the Taj Mahal Hotel in 2008 when it was bombed.

He was checking out and the clerk told him that he had been advised that his flight had been delayed and offered to keep his bags at the front desk and he could stay in the hotel lounge, and he would arrange for his car the pick him up in a couple of hours. He declined this offer, he wasn’t sure why, but he just had a feeling that it wasn’t a good idea and decided that we would wait at the airport instead.

His car was just around the corners when the first bomb went off at the front desk, if he had stayed, he could have died. He still isn’t sure what he saw that made him pick up on the fact that something was happening, it might have been someone in a hotel uniform that didn’t quite fit or a bag that looked out of place, no one knows but he picked up on something that saved his life.

This is part of us constantly scanning our environment to determine, is safe or not safe.

Another thing that we do rapidly and often before the whole situation has played out, meaning that it can often be to our detriment. We make up our minds about people in the first seven seconds of meeting them, if not before if given the chance. We form these impressions of things based on very small amounts of data and we need to classify things as good or bad. Once we have made this decision, we screen everything through the lens of that decision, good or bad and it becomes very hard to change our minds.

If you put this concept into the workplace, say recruiting staff, once you have met the person you have already made up your mind about if you would like to work with the person or not, and you will screen the whole interview through that lens.

You could have two candidates say the same thing in the interview, for example, I’m a real change-maker, I like to get in there and shake things up.

You will have vastly different reactions to it depending on if you had decided you like the person or not. If you had decided you do, you might think something like, you know what that might be great, we could that. If you had decided that you didn’t, you might think something like I’m not sure we are ready for that at the moment I’m not sure this would work.

These behaviours play a huge role in a workplace and can set the mood of the whole organisation. What situations would you use these classifying principles in the workplace?

  • Any kind of news that needs to be announced to the team.
  • Change of policy
  • Providing feedback to employees
  • Any time you need to make sure that the right message is received.

Imagine that you had flown somewhere for an event or conference and we weren’t supposed to make it back for our grandfather’s birthday on the day of return but on the last day of the event it finished early so we headed to the airport and when we got there we find out that there is an earlier flight that will make it home in time to make the birthday but you have a non-refundable, non-changeable ticket.

You have seven words to convince the person at the desk to change our ticket, what would you say?

  • I would appreciate your help
  • I hope you can help me
  • I would appreciate whatever you can do

In these situations, you want to appeal to their nature and put the power in their hands, people like to have the opportunity to take control and remember the first seven words are the most important. Essentially you need to get the person to trust and like you within the first few moments.

You want to stick to seven principles:

  • Be specific to the situation
  • Use plain language – you want them to be able to easily process, especially if they are under stress
  • Be truthful – you want them to trust you and people know when you are lying
  • Single concept – not to confuse them
  • Emotion – you want to trigger the right emotion for the situation
  • No jargon – they may not understand what you mean by the terminology
  • Narrative – you want to provide a theme
  1. Loss Aversion.

This section is very applicable to change or restructures in organisations.

People say that people don’t like change but that’s not true, what people are worried about when it comes to change is losing something, no matter how big or small that thing might be.

This is what people are looking for when change is announced, what are they going to lose or what are they going to gain?

If they find that they will gain something they are likely to support the change but if they find that they will lose something, then they will resist it. If they cannot see it going one way or another they will tend to resist because again humans are hardwired to negativity.

There was a study done in the US on 60,000 games of basketball that found if a team was only slightly behind at halftime that would invariably come back and win the match but if they were losing by more than a few points then they wouldn’t win.

This is because we do not like to lose, no matter what it is that we are losing.

An interesting example of a situation where this comes up is the fall of the berlin wall, most people around the world thought that this was a great thing. But who do you think would have potentially resisted it because they were losing something?

The border guards. They had spent years at these posts and now they would have to be reassigned, potentially having to move their families disrupting their whole life.

People become very self-centred when they are going to lose something and become very selfish.

  1. Gossip

There is a very interesting reason behind why as humans we gossip. It is something referred to as social grooming.

When we look back at our ancestors and animals, we see that they physically groom each other. They often do this when they are feeling uncomfortable or uneasy to make themselves feel safe again. Humans no longer engage in physical grooming in our western culture, we now use social chitchat to reassure ourselves and connect to other people. Gossip is our way of trying to make sense of what is going on around us and these days it is so easy to engage in this behaviour because we can contact each other so easily through the internet or over the phone.

Now, how does this fit into an organisation?

If the boss walks into work in the morning looking grumpy or worried, you would likely find staff huddled at some point that day offering theories as to why. Is business bad, has something happened, again defaulting to negative, they do this to connect to those that they trust.

We looked at this further, using what we call gossip maps.

The below diagram illustrates connections between people within a team. The thick lines indicated that they were very close and would see each other outside of work. Thin lines, they were likely to chat at work but were not as close and no lines they would only talk when they need to for work and only about work.

Adding your position to the above diagram can help identify organisational or communication problems within your team.

As you can see in the above diagram, Cindy in R&D doesn’t have any strong connections with most of the team but the most likely to become problematic are MRK, Sales, CFO and possibly the CEO, but you can see that she has a strong connection to Erika, CEO’s PA, meaning that she probably is getting most of the information about the CEO, but is getting it through the grapevine rather than direct.

As a team leader or boss, you should try and create equal connections with all your staff, this avoids someone feeling left out or like you are playing favourites.

Why not try creating your gossip map?

As yourself is there anything that you feel you need to change or work on in your organisation?

  1. Empathy and Mind Reading.

We are one of the few species that spend a lot of time thinking about what other people are thinking, particularly what they are thinking about us.

We do this by reading people, we watch their faces and their body language and can see how they are feeling. We scan the room when we arrive to see how everyone is feeling, if everyone is smiling, we can relax and will feel safe, if everyone is frowning and looking worried or grumpy, we will be cautious and potentially feel unsafe. This is an important thing for leaders to be conscious of, the reason for this is because people watch leaders the most.

Because people watch leaders, your tone will have a flow-on effect throughout the workplace, if you are having a bad day, be conscious of it as people again default to negative and assume that it is them or something bad for them. You don’t need to pretend that you’re happy when you’re not because people will also pick up on this, just be transparent, tell people what happened or just let them know you’re having a rough day, assure people that it isn’t about them and then they will be able to get on with their day and stop worrying about what is going on.

We then moved on to, connection and identity in teams. What do you think that you need to know about someone to feel like you know them?

Some of the things that come up were:

  • Know about their family, the make-up/ dynamics, do they have kids/ are they caregivers?
  • Know about their culture, origin, and what country they are from
  • Know what their hobbies and interests are

We only trust people once we know them and all these things that we do when we are getting to know people are to determine, can we trust this person or not?

Examples of when a team didn’t trust their CEO, one turned it around and one didn’t.

  1. Confidence before realism.

This is a behaviour that has served us well going back hundreds or thousands of years ago, being able to display confidence and success is a very useful survival mechanism but it shows up in business as people being overconfident to the point where they deny reality.

Below is an example of when this has appeared in an organisation and had both good and bad results:

Most of us have heard of Deepwater horizon, the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and is considered to be the worst oil spill in history. Bp who were managing the rig were ignoring information about safety from the engineers. There was a lot of financial pressure behind it as they were running 20 days behind and four days before the explosion one of the engineers on board wrote a strongly worded email to the managers saying that it wasn’t safe and they needed to stop but they wrote back saying it will probably be fine. Four days later the rig exploded.

Most of us have also heard of US Airways Flight 1549, the commercial airliner that Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed on the Hudson River in 2009 after hitting a flock of geese just after taking off. Air traffic control told him that it would be fine, airports on both sides of the river had cleared the runways and to turn back and land at one of these. Now Captain Sullenberger had been investigating air crashes and he knew that one of the leading causes of crashes was overconfidence and thinking that everything will be fine, he knew that he wasn’t going to make it to either of the airports. As an experienced pilot, he would have known how difficult water landings are, so when he decided to ditch on the Hudson river he would have known that his chances of survival were low but knew that it was a safer option than to try and make it to one of the airports and potentially hit a building and kill hundreds of people. Fortunately, he landed it perfectly and everyone survived thanks to him overcoming confidence before realism.

  1. Contest and Display.

This is about looking good in our social hierarchy; it is about who is who and the pecking order.

People will go to all kinds of lengths to display this, in our western culture these days it has a lot to do with material things, the things that we have, the things we do and how we dress.

We do this because we require hierarchy, we need to know where we sit in terms of the social hierarchy.

This comes into play when we walk into a room of people, say at a conference, we look around and see how people are dressed and use this to determine where we fit in that hierarchy. This allows us to know who to approach, who we can talk to and who we cannot.

It comes out in a lot of different ways, sport is a big one that brings out the contest and display we want to win the competition, fashion is about fitting into a social group and displaying our social status, particularly brand labels. In organisations, it comes out as an employee of the month or 100 best companies to work for.

This comes out without us realising it as unconscious bias. This can come out in the workplace during recruitment, there is well-researched evidence that if someone wears, recognisable brand name labels to an interview they are far more likely to get the job than if you are wearing something else.

  1. Social Belonging.

This is a very important one when it comes to how you structure your business.

Social belonging is important, and it is something that we do that not a lot of other species tend to do. As humans, we tend to have strong family bonds, this is something that we didn’t lose when we moved to offices and factories.

Back in our savannah days, we would live in family groups of seven, plus or minus two, so in groups from 5-9 would be our immediate family group.

The same should apply to the size of your team, aim for around a group of 7.

Clan sizes were up to around 150, this is because this is around the number of people that we can recognise, anything larger than this will naturally split.

This is the same for organisations, once a business gets to this point you will notice that you no longer recognise everyone and it will naturally segment into two and this is what we call silos or divisions, we do this deliberately in organisations these days and they are called divisions, teams or groups.

We are a species that needs to belong to a small, connected group, so when we go to work, we are looking for another small connected family-like group. Therefore smaller teams work better than larger teams.

Flight Centre is an example of a business that has utilised this concept, they build their business around the idea of a group or team of 7. If you walk into one of their stores you will notice that they have seven desks, and if they have a demand for more service in the area, they will open another store rather than expand.

Essentially, we need to design organisations to work with human instincts not against them.

There is a set of six principles for this,

  • Teams of seven – close connected group
  • Line of sight is seven – Voices at the table / direct reports to you
  • Avoid power evenly distributed – The leader needs to be clear
  • Clan-sized divisions, up to 150 – still feel a sense of belonging
  • Avoid the matrix – natural pecking order is a straight line
  • Avoid Geographical reporting – Strongest connections are face to face
  1. Hierarchy and Status.

We have talked about points in this behaviour already, social animals always have a pecking order, it gives order and avoids quarrels that come with not knowing what this looks like.

While Ros our workshop facilitator was completing her accreditation in Human Instincts, she visited Taronga Zoo, Sydney spending time watching the Chimpanzees. Chimpanzees behave in very similar ways to humans, but they do it very obviously, so you can see very clearly all the instincts play out.

The alpha male has been the leader of this tribe for many years now, the tribe loves him but also disciplines the other members when needed. He does this in a three-stage system, first, he stars, seconds he grunts at them and if they still have not listened he will go over and gives them a cuff on the ear. As he has gotten older, the younger chimps started to challenge him, the zoo didn’t want this to happen because he has been such a good leader and the tribe has been very settled with him as the leader. They were planning on refurbishing the enclosure but decided that this was a good time to do so. Once the enclosure was ready, they returned the alpha to the enclosure first with a few of the females, they then slowly over a few weeks added the remaining chimps and finally added the two young males that had been challenging back to the enclosure last. They found that by doing this that they didn’t give any trouble, and this is because they had lost their power base, the alpha had been able to re-establish himself and become dominant over the territory.

The same goes for people, there is an example of how this is used in a tribe in Africa. When the young men start to get antsy and want to establish their dominance they are sent out of the tribe during the day. They spend their time hunting and sitting under trees, before returning to the tribe at night. They are physically removed because the tribe knows that having all the young men around with lots of testosterone, they are going to start wanting to challenge the chief. They avoid this by keeping them physically removed from the tribe. Removing the young men allows the chief to continue to hold the power.

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