Blame Darwin for office politics

Oct 08 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Managers, particularly male ones, play politics, fight turf wars, worry about appearances and constantly try to get the upper hand not because they are being petty Hitlers, but because evolution has told them to act in this way.

According to a study by academics at the University of New South Wales in Australia the way male managers dress, their posture and how they exercise power is related to humans' evolutionary biology.

Prehistoric behaviours, such as male domination, protecting what is perceived as their "turf" and ostracising those who do not agree with the group is more commonplace in everyday work situations than many of us care to accept, according to the research.

Lead researcher Professor Jeffrey Braithwaite, of the university's Institute for Health Innovation, carried out hundreds of interviews and observations of health workers over a 15-year period, comparing their behaviours with the archaeology and anthropology of the earliest known humans.

In every work environment, bosses, like any dominant animal, mark out their territory, assert their authority and display their power, he concluded.

Just as male peacocks flaunted their plumage to attract a mate, so male managers often teamed a dark suit, to denote gravitas and seriousness, with a brightly coloured shirt or tie, in this case not to attract a partner but to assert their top-dog position in the workplace.

"This tribal culture is similar to what we would have seen in hunter gather bands on the savannah in southern Africa," said Professor Braithwaite.

"While this research focuses specifically on health care settings, the results can be extrapolated to other workplaces," he added.

"Groups were territorial in the past because it helped them survive. If you weren't in a tight band, you didn't get to pass on your genes. Such tribalism is not necessary in the same way now, yet we still have those characteristics because they have evolved over two million years.

"It's a surprise just how hard-wired this behaviour is. It's predictable that a group will ostracise a whistleblower, for instance. It's not good, but it's understandable in the tribal framework. It explains all sorts of undesirable behaviours, including bullying," he argued.

Other findings that emerged from the research included the fact that meetings tended to be held in the most senior manager's office, who typically dominated the proceedings.

Managers did not spend as much of their time as people thought sitting reading quietly or attending to paperwork in front of a computer.

Instead they were more often out and about manoeuvring and positioning themselves at meetings, one-on-one encounters and coffee cliques.

Managers rarely took lunch or tea breaks, while non-managerial staff regularly took an allocated period of time for breaks.

"We need to stop being simplistic and realise that changing behaviours and encouraging teamwork is much harder than we think," said Professor Braithwaite.

"Getting different groups together and talking through some of the differences, and appreciating some of the unwritten rules which drive people, are crucial steps in improving trust," he added.


Older Comments

The basic foundation is all wrong. Man did not evolve. We were created. Get that right if you want to be taken seriously and be successful in the long run.