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It’s Smarter to Work With Human Nature

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Workplaces are human systems. Yet how much of our approach to leadership is underpinned by principles of human nature? The smartest way to lead, and the smartest way to lift an organization’s leadership capability, is to use the power of human nature.

Human nature was formed in a very different setting from where we find ourselves today. It was only with the Industrial Revolution that we shifted from being hunter-gatherers and villagers to being factory workers and corporate professionals. That brief period (about 250 years) is no time to alter what it means to be human—the way our brains work, the way we process information, and our social natures. Behavior that served us well in our ancestral setting is still prevalent in today’s offices, corridors, and meeting rooms!

Insight into human instincts both explains the behaviors that often limit an organization’s performance, and provides solutions for those challenges. This insight can provide a new perspective on issues like:

  • silo-creating behavior and internal rivalries
  • difficulty implementing change
  • power displays and petty politics
  • leaders being reluctant to have performance conversations
  • gossip and the power of rumor.

The Hardwired Humans framework comprises nine natural behaviors or preferences. These nine behaviors or preferences cover our social natures, our need to bond with others, the role of hierarchy, how our brains process information, our individual natures, and our sensitivity to maintaining our social position.
The framework guides organizations in a number of situations where alignment to the principles of human nature make a radical difference: organizational design, leadership capability, and leadership during change.

Organizational Design

It’s tough to expect a leader to lead well if their role is designed to be dysfunctional. To be functional, the design needs to be within the tolerance of natural human behavior. Of the six principles of design, we’ll cover two here: family-sized teams and clan-sized units.

Human societies have always been built on small family groups. Our family, the group with which we feel a sense of intimacy, is around seven people, plus or minus two. So, we will design our organization around teams of between five and nine people, including a manager and their direct reports. Build a team outside of that tolerance, and we are asking the manager to do an undoable job.

The next level of design is clans of up to about 150 people; the clan is our department or operating unit. This number relates to the size of our brain, as explained by Professor Robin Dunbar from the University of Oxford. The brain allows us to manage the complexity of the relationship dynamics in a group; and for humans, with our big brains, that level of complexity is up to about 150 people. This is the number up to which we can feel a sense of belonging.


With functional teams and units in place, we can then keep scaling, and build global organizations that are designed for success and not weighed down by faulty design.

Leadership Development

Once we have designed the leaders’ roles for success by managing group size, we can focus on leadership capability. Most leaders find that the people element of their role is the most challenging and the most unpredictable. The people dimension is particularly challenging because leaders tend not to have a framework that explains human behavior. The framework of nine instincts fills that gap, and gives leaders the basis of making good leadership choices—knowing what will work and what won’t.

A leadership development experience based on the science of human instincts helps leaders connect emotionally and logically with effective leadership practices. Understanding human nature can help managers:

  • Better influence others and avoid miscommunication.
  • Use their power constructively—whether at the team, clan, or tribal level of leadership.
  • Avoid factions in a team by knowing the impact of favoritism.
  • Relate to people as individuals so the leader has the moral authority to lead.
  • Foster team harmony through the human practice of bonding.
  • Understand why people engage in rumor and how to use this compulsion positively.
  • Overcome their natural tendency to avoid performance feedback.
  • Know what to do when things go well!

Change Management

Implementing change can be a major leadership challenge. Conventional wisdom says that “people resist change,” but that’s not true—it’s a misreading of the actual human response. By understanding how human instincts work, we can recognize what’s really going on . . . and we can then lead change much more effectively, with less distraction and anxiety.

What appears to be resistance to change is explained by two instincts: the instinct to classify first impressions, and loss aversion. When change is presented to people, they have a need to classify—to make sense of the possible impact of the change to the individual. Our classification categories are binary in nature, usually variations of “good” versus “bad.” When people first hear about a change, they are compelled to classify it as either “gain” (good) or “loss” (bad). We make these binary impressions on very thin slices of information.

Generally, when people first hear about a change, they are not yet able to really know the impact of the change to them; and if they can’t accurately classify something, the default is to assume the worst—this is the instinct of loss aversion. This is because humans, like other creatures, are more driven by the avoidance of loss than the opportunity to gain; we avoid threats as the primary motivator.

Through the lens of human instincts, there are nine fundamental decisions leaders make in implementing change—the decisions we call the Nine Essentials for Leading Change. Leaders have frameworks for the technical parts of their role; an understanding of the principles of human nature fills the gap that many leaders have on the people part of their role.

About the Author
Andrew O’Keeffe is the director of Hardwired Humans and author of Hardwired Humans – Successful Leadership Using Human Instincts and The Boss – A novel based on true stories about bosses. His background is in senor HR roles with IBM, Cable & Wireless, and Hewitt Associates. He holds a bachelor of economics from The University of Sydney. Over the last decide, when legendary chimpanzee researcher Dr Jane Goodall visits Australia she and Andrew join forces to speak to business audiences about the implications of our social natures for leadership. In connecting the leadership of humans with our ancestral past, Andrew has spent time talking with ancestral elders about their approaches to leadership and social harmony, including the San Bushmen, the Himba and the Maasai.
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