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Do hunter-gatherers have problems with engagement?

Sam Dods

Us humans have always been hierarchical haven’t we – that’s our natural state and how we work and live in groups most effectively? The evidence suggests not. It appears that resistance to being dominated was a key factor that drove the evolutionary development of human consciousness. Basically, we don’t like being told what to do and tend to disengage if we have no influence in a situation.

Contributor – Sam Dods, Managing Director – Koru.

Employee engagement is declining worldwide and many initiatives such as reward and recognition schemes are doing little or nothing to improve the situation. However, it seems that an increasing number of organisations are implementing aspects of hunter-gatherer life that are having a beneficial effect on engagement.

Prior to the first agricultural revolution c.12,000 years ago many of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, unlike our primate relatives, were egalitarian with individuals exerting similar influence and taking initiative temporarily depending on the type of work being done. It appears that this way of working together, effectively getting all the group’s brains engaged and focused on a common purpose, gave us an evolutionary advantage in our complex biological ecosystem.

Since the first agricultural revolution we increased centralised control over people and resources, particularly in the last c.2500 years of empire building, peaking in 1922 with the British empire which included approximately 25 percent of the Earth’s population and surface area. During the early part of this period of our history the hierarchical approach to organising ourselves seemed to serve us when work was relatively slow changing and simple: while there was overall design of our increasingly complex projects like the construction of large structures, tradespeople such as stonemasons initially had creative input into their work.

The Industrial Revolution of 1760 – 1840 which did so much to increase the standard of living for the general population also introduced practices that have contributed to the engagement problems we see now in many organisations. In the drive to increase productivity, work was increasingly broken down into documented repeatable tasks that required no creative input from the work force – in fact creativity was often discouraged in these situations. People weren’t employed – a pair of hands were employed to repeat tasks as rapidly and with as little variation as possible.

At about the same time similar things were happening in the arts. In classical music, for example, musicians used to improvise in sections of the music referred to as cadenzas. But in the 19th century, composers began to write the cadenzas out in full, reducing the musicians’ creative input. Basically, we imposed increasing levels of controls on individuals at the expense of having trust in their ability to contribute creatively. This increased productivity in the work place. It also increased disengagement which was initially kept in check by factors such as the fear of authority that was part of a society where people had “jobs for life”.

Since then our world, including the way we work, has become significantly more complex. Many areas of work including those that typically needed “a pair of hands” are becoming increasingly automated and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is accelerating this trend with some people such as Elon Musk, CEO Tesla, suggesting that “robots will be able to do everything better than us” and that AI is a “fundamental existential risk to human civilisation.” While the extent to which this is true is not clear what is clear is that machines will increasingly take over areas of work that require repeatable skills, leaving one area for human endeavour: creativity. And this, apart from anything else, requires engagement.

So the key question is what can we do to improve engagement?
It appears that the world of technology that played a part in generating our engagement problems may also be playing a part in finding solutions. The tech world, possibly in response to its rapidly increasing complexity, is adopting aspects of some hunter-gatherer societies in both the way businesses are organising themselves and in the technologies that are being developed.

Blockchain, for example, is a technology that is based on an open distributed database with no centralised control. And many tech companies are experimenting with “flattened” egalitarian organisational structures – removing centralised hierarchical control and replacing it with small self-organising groups built on trust. Put simply; less controls – more trust.

It would be naive to think that we can return to some sort of utopian hunter-gatherer “golden age” – the world has moved on, as have we from the low-level individuation of hunter-gatherer society to highly narcissistic individuation in contemporary culture. But the evidence suggests that the return to more egalitarian ways of organising ourselves such as Holacracy and Jeff Bezos’ “microservices” are improving both engagement and creativity, which in turn is resulting in more effective organisations.

Part of the success of these approaches is that they allow individuals and groups a great deal more freedom in determining how they work. Since the industrial age, by contrast, we’ve had to conform to many norms such as working standard hours, with little consideration for variability of individual needs. The new approaches allow a great deal more flexibility in working hours, often using IT systems to support collaboration of people working different hours, sometimes in different parts of the world.

This is much more aligned with hunter-gatherer behaviour as identified in new research into sleep patterns of Tanzanian hunter-gatherers by Duke University, North Carolina. They found that individuals slept whenever they wanted to; 33 tribe members only slept simultaneously for 18 minutes in 3 weeks of observations. Catering to individual needs in this way not only improves engagement but can also provide other advantages: in the case of hunter-gatherers, researchers believe that the distributed sleep pattern could be a survival tool to guard against threats. For contemporary organisations it ensures that people are working under optimal conditions, tailored to their needs. This can also play an important part in increasing diversity.

In the move to cater for individual needs many organisations are also providing break out spaces and entertainment so that people can socialise with their colleagues. This has a great deal in common with hunter-gatherer practice; some anthropologists, such as Marshall Sahlins, found that they spent a significant amount of time relaxing and socialising rather than working and characterized them as “the original affluent society”. This socialising serves many purposes including improving group performance by building closer, trusting relationships. It also serves to minimise conflict.

And when conflict does arise in these flattened organisations there are a number of lessons to be learnt from hunter-gatherer societies. Since many of them had no central authority, conflict was often collectively dealt with using non-violent social means. While not all of these practices are applicable in our contemporary culture, many of the new flattened organisational approaches include some form of conflict resolution training for all members such as Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

While many of these approaches that empower people and cater to their individual needs can improve engagement it is clear that this is not the whole picture. We are complex beings and need a shared sense of purpose; not just a clinical vision or mission statement but something that has emotional meaning. Without it every issue can become a mountain and initiatives such as break out and entertainment areas have little or no positive impact. On the other hand, organisations with a clear sense of purpose and empowered, cared for people, can overcome significant challenges.

Keeping this sense of purpose alive becomes one of the key roles of the leader in these flattened organisations along with establishing and maintaining a set of values as well as processes required for self-managing teams to work together effectively. Once these are in place they can, in the ideal situation, become self-maintaining but getting there can be a significant leadership challenge, requiring a great deal of self-awareness and willingness to live the values; “do as I do” rather than “do as I say” – those days are long gone.

But if organisations can get there, as an increasing number have, the benefits in engagement and creativity can be significant, particularly for those operating in complex, rapidly evolving markets. The success has not however been universal, so it is unlikely that we’re going to see whole scale adoption of these practices in the next few decades. As our world becomes increasingly complex however we are likely to see a significant number of organisations taking on some of the practices associated with flattened organisations.

And in doing so organisations will not only reap the benefits of improved performance associated with increased engagement, but may also play a part helping society adopt some of our hunter-gatherer ancestors more egalitarian way of living together – something that we seem to need now more than ever.

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