Managing the human animal at work

by 20 Feb 2007

MANY OF the common obstacles HR professionals face in dealing with people, such as organisational silos, uncooperative executives and gaining traction for new initiatives, can be put down to instinctive behaviour that is naturally hardwired into the human species.

“Homo sapiens emerged on the plains of Africa around 200,000 years ago. It’s only 250 years ago that we have left our tribes and villages to come to work in offices and factories,” said Andrew O’Keeffe, of management consultancy Hardwired Humans.

“Human behaviour that enabled us to survive on the plains of Africa is alive and well in today’s organisations.”

The key is to understand human behaviour and then use that knowledge to design effective people strategies that will operate naturally for humans, and not fight against our natural instincts, O’Keeffe said.

An example of this is hot-desking, which goes against the natural human instinct. “Our species finds hot-desking isolating. The point is that if HR and line executives convince themselves that hot-desking is to be introduced, then be prepared that it will be resisted by people or have negative consequences; so manage it accordingly,” O’Keeffe said.

Based on research conducted by academics and animal researchers such as Jane Goodall, O’Keeffe said there are 10 instincts that humans don’t have to learn.

“One of them is the instinct to gossip. Gossiping is the sharing of information, particularly to find out what’s going on in the world around you,” he said.

“As a survival technique 200,000 years ago, this skill was very useful. Your chances of survival and your chances of passing on your genes was enhanced if you had the ability to gain information. It also helped with living in social groups to work out who you could trust and who owed you a favour.”

If HR designs and implement practices that are consistent with human instincts, then those initiatives will operate naturally, according to O’Keeffe.

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