The Source Wall: An Introduction
Question: What do superhero protagonists and have to do with performance reviews?
If you spend enough time working on organizational design and behavior, you will eventually be asked about your beliefs on human nature. Clients and colleagues will ask what you believe. Are human beings naturally selfish entities that need to be hemmed in by the powers of rules or the indifferent, unforgiving discipline of market forces in order to work together?
Other clients and colleagues venture (usually not those in management positions), are we not all fundamentally innocents? Perhaps our troubles working in concert are really caused by the sins of those who would manipulate us into working under harsh environments and force us into winner-take-all worldview for their own purposes? Our struggle is the fault of the hypocrites. It’s the fat cats, the charismatic charlatans, and those who indulge in the perversions of human nature that are to blame for the way we are.
Stretching between these two corners of the philosophical universe, I have heard a whole range of speculation on the root causes of why people do the things we do.
But in wishing to ground my practice in reliability and being the son of honorable specialists in the fields of human biology and information science respectively, I’ve forced myself to stick with what the research tells me. And, ultimately, there is a fairly straightforward, if unsatisfying answer to this question based on the evidence observed from centuries of study in the natural world:
Human nature is not really a thing. Rather, all available evidence points to the fact that we are a curious branch of Nature that has developed an awesome and somewhat cruel capacity to reflect on our own existence.
Consequently, humans beings, recipients of this overwhelming gift that none of us ever asked for, have created all manner of ways to reconcile the dual reality that 1) we seem to be transient, inconsequential, momentary characters confined to the background of an infinitely larger cosmic play and 2) we feel a deep need to ensure that our lives matter despite this fact.
As Robert Sapolsky has demonstrated through his research on human biology and behavior, there are very few behaviors that humans exhibit that are not also demonstrated by other animals in the wild.
Yes, over the course of our evolution, humans have been able to develop more complex forms of certain kinds cognition and social organization than any other species. But tool-making, culture, theory of mind, are other such categories of skill are not unique to humans. (Dolphins can remember their friends after twenty years of absence and they don’t even need Facebook pages do achieve this.)
Ironically, our only observable exceptionalism as a species lies in an inherent glitch in our extraordinary cognitive abilities:
The more impossible something appears to be, the more ardently we believe in its possibility -- and the more feverish we are in our efforts to construct the symbolism, analogies, ideology, and actions necessary for us to work out a self-serving proof of its possibility.
Human beings, for the most part, use illusions to hold ourselves together. We navigate the world and our lives by choosing which illusions we will believe in.
(Hang in there, folks. I swear I’m getting to fun part.)
For my part, I believe that because we are all confronted with this reality that, once confronted, it is the primary responsibility of a person to commit to building a set of principles on which they can govern their behavior. More to the point -- and to borrow from a preeminent philosopher of our time, Omar Little -- we got to have a code. Warning: Bunk's pronunciation of the s-word (at 0:50) is a symphony of delight yet ostensibly NSFW.
I also believe it is our responsibility to ensure that our encoded set of principles produces behaviors that, in practice, produce outcomes for the primary benefit of others. As a good friend of mine once said, “I think our purpose is to take care of each other.” Alternatively, as the more market-based proverb goes, “No one ever went broke giving something of value to others.”
We can achieve the primary goal of benefiting others through a countless number of altruistic philosophies, including through business. It would appear that are so many ways to win at this game of life and only a very limited number of ways to lose. So why do we often feel like we can’t win when it comes to working with others or keeping our society together?
I believe that the fault -- to philosophically mangle Shakespeare and the wonderful John Green -- are the stars within us. The problem with group cohesion is not that we are caught up in some fundamental flaw of human nature. The challenge lies in that we can’t separate ourselves from Nature.
Consequently, what should be a secondary step in adapting to modern human society, turns out to be one of our most fundamental and all-consuming drives. We need to feel a sense of belonging to a social group. This motivation is already deeply encoded into our hormones and development, making it nearly impossible for us to subject the desire to critical thought or subjugate it to moral code-making.
Essentially, in considering our modern social problems, Nature has put the social cognition cart before the horse.
To put it another way, we often find ourselves trying to build 21st-century multicultural societies with 15,000 year-old social thinking. By comparison, something akin to writing blockchain with a chisel, hammer, and limestone.
If we were able to pursue our social development from scratch in order both confront the challenge of both belonging and constructing a set of principles on which we can all live by in concert then we have to reverse the order of operations. This is essentially the task of our governments, multinational corporate entities, local organizations, faith-based organizations and communities find themselves engaged with nowadays whether they like to admit it or not. (Hence, I have a secure job. Someone tell my mom.)
The truth of our era is that the near impossibility of living a human life in which we reliably stick to our code and where our individual codes operate in synchronicity with one another is becoming even more impossible, despite our best efforts to cordon ourselves off behind gated communities and our confirmation bias channel of choice.
The sheer number of us and the increasing ability for us to instantaneously connect and exchange information with one another is ensuring that the different principles on which we base (and more often ex post facto rationalize) our behavior are bumping up against one another with increasing frequency and velocity.
This is increasing social tumult -- it would appear much more so than most experts are interested in discussing. (A search on the ERIC database reveals 932 sources citing “social conflict” published in the last 5 years compared to 1,065 citing “social innovation”.)
As a result, the data seems to be pointing to the fact that it is even more critical for us to find others with whom we can create a cohesive, shared set of agreed upon principles, principles that allow us to work effectively together across differences and use our collective skills to create breakthrough solutions that allow us to sustain and enjoy life and, borrowing from Whitman, to allow the wonderful play to go on.
I would argue we should be making our best effort to all be Self-Aware, Altruistic Constitutionalists. We should be in the business of helping each other contribute to the construction of inclusive social contracts -- with initial conditions devoid of explicit or implied hierarchy -- that allow us to do right by our collective human future.
If this feels a little dogmatic I would argue that, as far as dogmas go, this is a relatively flexible philosophy grounded in the best evidence of what human beings do when we are at our best. Inclusive culture-building is our emerging superpower in business and in community life.
Or perhaps you feel that my philosophy feels a little too self-evident, in which case I would ask how you to reflect on how we are doing in the democracy department at the moment.
No matter how you feel about developing a constitution to guide your behavior at the workplace, mounting OD/OB and economic research is showing that just like families, educational institutions, and young people themselves who have the sufficient resources and stability to build their own moral codes, the cohesiveness adult organizations -- from multinationals to mom-and-pop shops to municipal offices -- play a key role in determining how we hold our communities together. (Work-related stress can play a significant role in marital problems.)
More than ever, research on socialization and organizational behavior are showing a path to get to this better of a future -- one where we can build more effective social groups with transparent cultures that allows us to use our diversity, inclusiveness, and openness to experience as the strengths that drive innovation and prosperity.
With that being said, it's pretty tough to make the construction of moral codes and social contracts entertaining to read about. Remember your high school civics class? (Don’t be ashamed. Sleep is healthy.)
But, after spending the last few weekends watching Ryan Coogler’s stellar Black Panther and Ava DuVernay’s gorgeous and compelling telling of one of my favorite childhood stories, A Wrinkle in Time, I’ve realized that we can always turn to storytellers for inspiration and direction in challenging times.
So, for as long as it’s fun and useful to you Dear Reader, I’ll be writing about we know from the culture-builders of today and bleeding-edge research from experts in human behavior and organizational design by discussing everything from Luke Cage to King Lear.
First up: On Will Phelps’ Research on Bad Apples and Group Behavior, The Dark Knight's Joker and How to Get a Nihilist to Care.
P.S. - If you dig where this is going, let me know what fictional character you relate to in your professional life in the comments below.
Chris Conroy is the Principal Officer of Conroy Talent & Associates, LLC, a workplace design and staffing firm dedicated to leveraging the natural human strengths of diversity, inclusion, equity, and communication to build workplaces people love. CTA is focused on delivering phenomenal diversity talent recruitment as well as organizational management consulting to organizations of all kinds.
You can reach him here on LinkedIn, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter. Click through to CTA's website below to learn more about their Diversity & Inclusion staffing and consulting services.