Stop, Collaborate, be Fair: It's Naturally Engaging

We are often asked by organisations to make recommendations because they find it a perplexing mystery as to how they can engage their staff and boost employee satisfaction. The impression I sometimes get is that some leaders act as though they are fighting against a natural tendency for employees to be dissatisfied, unmotivated and uncooperative. Now, although I think it is important to acknowledge that some aspects of leadership and engaging people are more akin to art (or based on intangible personal and contextual phenomena) but I think we can learn something from science here too.

The first observation I would make is that humans are uniquely predisposed towards collaborating and getting along. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (my favourite evolutionary thinker because she understands the importance of grandmothers) had me laughing out loud recently with her observation that even a plane flight is unique testimony to the friendly and cooperative nature of humans; almost any other species of primate strangers crammed into a budget cabin would descend into a scene of intense, anxious and chaotic aggression (perhaps mitigated by grooming and other behaviours in some species). The fact that hundreds of human strangers regularly jump in planes together with occasional arm rest and personal space issues is an amazing feat in the primate world; how much more so then, the work we do together everyday in organisations around the globe. And what about doing this on a bus!

While previously it was thought that it was our big brainy cognitive adeptness that set humans apart from other primates, it is perhaps this capacity for collaboration and teamwork that really sets humans apart from an early age. Researchers from the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the MPI for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen observed that when all else is equal (cognitive ability etc.), human children prefer to work together in solving a problem while other primates will more often opt to try and go it alone. Humans are natural collaborators.

But research also indicates something else about human nature that we frequently see in employee survey results; humans value fairness. Children at 3-4 years of age generally act selfishly but by the age of 7 or 8, children show a tendency to distribute rewards quite evenly and they will punish those who try to grab an unfair share of rewards. However, human development does not stop in some protosocialistic state. By adolescence a more nuanced sense of fairness develops; a degree of inequality is accepted as long as it is extracted by extra work or effort. But the research also suggests that the reward gap cannot go too far; brain imaging of people in these situations show a burst of activity in the amygdala, the ancient seat of outrage and aggression. Not something particularly amenable to collaboration.

In our surveys we often find a thwarted sense of collaboration can drive engagement down. People who find that inter-team collaboration is made too difficult often become disengaged over time. Additionally, a sense that people receive appropriate recognition and that the right people are rewarded and recognised are frequently strong drivers of engagement. These are not the only things that drive engagement but they represent some natural things for any organisation to keep a close eye on.

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