Our paper discusses how relevant the evolutionary tool kit is for understanding the behavior in organizations such as business firms, government agencies, or universities. Modern humans do show a great deal of plasticity in their behavior. By learning and deliberation they can adjust to the prevailing historical conditions. However, the adjustments start from, and are constrained by, innate pre-adaptations. These pre-adaptations were shaped at the time of early humans living in small bands. Having changed little since, they are fitted to ancestral conditions of survival and reproduction. The dramatically different demands not withstanding that modern organizations face, the pre-adaptations of their members leave “phylogenetic footprints” in organizational behavior. As they affect organizational coherence and performance, organizational design needs to account for their influences.

Whether early bands or modern organizations — where groups of humans engage in joint activities to accomplish a common goal a dual challenge arises. First, the group members must be coordinated on the group’s purpose. Second, they must be motivated, intrinsically or extrinsically by incentives and controls, to contribute to the purpose at an adequate level of effort. What can be accomplished in these respects is influenced by how the inherited pre-adaptations work out. On the one side there are the opportunist impulses, selfish free-riding, and agonistic dominance seeking within the group, presumably a legacy of our primate ancestors with their opportunistic and agonistic behavior towards their con-specifics. On the other side there is the phylogenetically more recent legacy of an emotional attachment to, and an intrinsically motivated support of, the own group.

Intrinsically motivated support of the group and its goals can only prevail as the norm as long as the group manages to keep opportunism, free-riding, and repressive domination by some group member(s) in check. Once repressive dominance takes over, identification with, and intrinsically motivated support of, the group regularly suffers. And with decreasing intrinsic motivation the frequency of free riding increases. Regarding the design of modern organizations the challenge thus is to find efficient forms of coordination that avoid repressive dominance. Likewise the frequency of opportunistic free-riding must be held down to sustain intrinsically motivated support of the organizational goals. In small groups such as those in which our ancestors lived these two conditions can be accomplished by spontaneously forming coalitions which block attempts to usurp power and by collective moral aggression (social ostracism) directed against free riders. However, both conditions involve collective action that is the more difficult to organize, the larger the group is.

If small organizations, particularly start-ups, have initially been able to adopt a non-dominating and cooperative mode of behavior, they often run into troubles therefore when the organization grows beyond the critical group size. Other means need to be found then to encounter the dual challenge of coordination and motivation. And, as we show, they have been found by such diverse, successfully growing organizations Google or Southwest Airlines whose success becomes more easily intelligible once the phylogenetic footprints in organizational behavior are recognized.


Read the paper: Witt, U., & Schwesinger, G. (2013). Phylogenetic footprints in organizational behavior.

Published On: July 3, 2013

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