Chapter 4: Insights from Evolutionary Psychology – Changing the IT Leader's Mindset – time for revolution rather than evolution


Evolutionary psychologists contend that although the world has changed, human beings have not. Indeed you might say that ‘you can take “man” out of the Stone Age but that you can’t take the Stone Age out of “man”’. In other words, we are hardwired to behave instinctively; we still posses those traits that made survival possible when we inhabited the savannah some 200,000 years ago.

For most of our history as Homo sapiens we have survived and reproduced as clan-living hunter-gatherers. It was only 10,000 years ago with the introduction of agriculture that our world radically changed. Suddenly communities accumulated surplus resources, which facilitated the accumulation of wealth, cultural elites and exploitative leaders in the form of chiefs, kings and warlords. Then, some 250 years ago, came the Industrial Revolution, and from then on a number of small and rapid steps have brought us to modern civilisation with its enormous social changes bought about by transport, technology and communications. Just 10,000 years is, however, a mere drop in the ocean in the scheme of things and insufficient time for significant genetic modifications to become established in the population.

Life on the savannah was short and fragile; as weak furless bipeds, human beings’ strength lay in their minds. Certain characteristics or ‘circuits’ increased our chance of survival. These fell into three prime categories:

1   A sense of belonging and knowing who to trust. Human beings are social creatures, and being a member of a group increased our chance of survival – hence the formation of clans and tribes. We are instinctively drawn towards those closer, more familiar or similar to us, i.e. members of our own clan or tribe. We use our ability to stereotype, as discussed in Chapter 2, to classify these people as insiders. Those who do not fit this mental model will be classified as outsiders; with outsiders we have a tendency to focus on and exaggerate perceived differences, and therefore may judge them harshly. This classification provided us with the knowledge of who to trust and who to be wary of, dismiss or fear. People are complex and many-sided, but we are not programmed to see them that way. During our days on the savannah, analysing options and next steps was not a recipe for a long and fertile life.

2   Knowing who to barter and trade with. Friendly exchanges of information, favours and goods for mutual benefit provided the opportunity for Homo sapiens to move from mere survival to a situation of prospering. Social skills were of paramount importance: good instincts, emotional radar, being in touch with the ever-changing social scene and tuned in to the grapevine.

3   Skill in negotiation and trading. A competitive instinct, avoidance of loss and self-confidence were all skills that helped to ensure we got the best deal for ourselves and didn’t get cheated in the process. Those who proved to be the best at negotiating and trading acquired respect and status. This led to the formation of hierarchy, of leaders and followers.

Figure 4: Three primitive instincts

So what are the implications for modern society in general and IT leaders in particular; how does it explain our behaviour today and what can we do to use our ‘hardwiring’ to our advantage?

Behavioural hardwiring – the implications for IT

In IT, much of our training and the way we are encouraged to work operates against our hardwiring. We are taught to dispense with our emotions and think logically and rationally, to make choices based on rigorous and logical analysis of the facts. We constantly search for the ‘right answer’. We forget that being right is not enough; that decisions are made on the basis of opinion, perception and interpretation, and are coloured by our own beliefs, values and assumptions.

Hence we try to replace our natural instincts of ‘hardwiring’ at the bottom two levels of the pyramid with systems and processes. Our hardwiring, however, comes to the fore at the top level of the pyramid; it manifests itself in a drive to compete and get the best deal for our IT departments, to avoid taking risks, in overconfidence in our knowledge of the rest of the business and our certainty that we are ‘right’. The consequences are manifold.

Our failure to adopt a service culture

With too much focus on the top of the pyramid and too little on the bottom, we end up giving the business what we think it needs, with the certainty that we are right, rather than building the relationships necessary to find out what it really needs. We make well-intended, but misplaced, assumptions. We think we know best and better than the business as to what is needed; we then try to pin down the requirements statement to the nth degree, allowing little room or flexibility to manoeuvre, and ultimately, we aim to control what is delivered through standards, procedures and detailed service-level agreements. This is not a recipe for winning the hearts and minds of one’s customers.

IT departments need to adopt a service culture, to find ways of giving the business what it needs and wants rather than telling it what it can and cannot have. We need to accept that businesses are living organisms and constantly changing, therefore the systems that we produce must be inherently flexible and adaptable to afford the business the agility it needs.

We, as IT leaders, need to recognise that we are selling both ourselves and the services our departments offer. Every good salesperson knows that ‘dislike of the salesperson’ is the most significant reason for not buying a product or service offered. So, being liked could well be rather important. The question is, what does it take to become liked, to be ‘likeable’? It is important to stress that when we say ‘likeable’, we are really talking about being seen as an ‘insider’, rather than as an ‘outsider’. In our opinion it is important to concentrate on all of the following:

•   building relationships

•   speaking well of others

•   taking an interest in other people, and their activities and interests

•   being able to converse on a wide range of subjects

•   sharing common interests

•   actively listening to others and accepting that they have a valid point of view, even if you don’t agree with it

•   praising rather than criticising

•   demonstrating empathy and being sensitive to the moods and feelings of others

•   having respect for other people and treating them the way they would wish to be treated

•   putting oneself out to help others, without expecting anything in return

•   demonstrating modesty and humility and being prepared to admit your mistakes, or that you are wrong

•   above all, possessing a sense of humour.

Our aversion to risk

When it comes to risk aversion and our avoidance of loss, our hardwiring and our IT training are working in sync. This could make us doubly cautious and explain why we find it so difficult to learn the lessons from project failures and often neglect to undertake proper post-implementation reviews. It also explains why it is so difficult to invite people to make mistakes in the name of creativity. Our quality and control systems encourage us to get things right first time; this is at total odds with the concept of a learning organisation. In a learning organisation, one asks questions that generate ideas, which are then tested in experiments. The aim of the learning organisation is not to get things right first time, but rather to learn from mistakes and failures, to reflect upon why things work the way they do, and to use that knowledge to deal with root causes, rather than applying short-term remedies to symptoms.

IT leaders need to frame problems and challenges in a way that is neither threatening nor tranquillising. They need to create a feeling of urgency that drives action and mobilises their people into seeking more innovative solutions and taking a more proactive view of risk.

Our preference for relying upon our own knowledge and judgement

Our innate self-confidence, coupled with a preference for ‘thinking’, encourages us to reach conclusions based on few facts and to have overconfidence in our own judgement. Overconfidence can cause a blindness to facts that conflict with our opinions or assumptions; it can lead us to pretend that there isn’t a problem, or that it isn’t that bad – we just need more time. This may provide an explanation for all those runaway systems-projects. IT leaders need to recognise when they are fighting a losing battle and muster the courage and the strength to say: ‘enough is enough’. In addition, they need to develop the humility to seek guidance and help.

Our reluctance to make networking and relationship-building our number one priority

IT leaders need to place networking far higher on their agendas than the majority do today; they need to build personal relationships with their business colleagues to ensure that they see beyond the stereotype of the IT ‘geek’. They need to work hard to ensure that their words and actions are seen to be congruent with the aims and direction of the business, and supportive of wider business goals.

They need to become gossip-central. Being gossip-central increases your chance of being in the right place at the right time. You will also have the opportunity to pick up on minor problems, and nip them in the bud before they become major issues. Gossip and the ‘grapevine’ are some of the most effective communication media within any organisation.

Relationship-building requires sensitivity and empathy towards others; this will encourage others to open up to you. Learn to listen ‘actively’ to what other people are saying to you, rather than focusing on what you want to say next; you are far more likely to hear secrets and other information if you appear trustworthy, sympathetic and interested. Try to put yourself in the shoes of others and judge their behaviour through their value sets rather than your own; those with the knack of guessing what others are thinking are likely to ask better and more probing questions. Dedicate time for networking and other forms of human interaction. Lunchtimes are a prime opportunity to interact with others in an informal atmosphere; it is far more beneficial than catching up with your e-mail whilst eating a sandwich!

Our passion for matrix forms of management

People are instinctively drawn towards commitment to one community at a time, usually the one that is physically closer and more familiar; thus, the dual loyalties that matrix management requires are difficult to sustain, and matrix structures remain one of the most difficult and least successful organisational forms. This has huge implications for the popular BRM (business relationship manager) role, which was invented to solve the relationship-gap issue between IT and the rest of the business; it explains why people in these roles often find themselves ‘piggy in the middle’. If, for example, a BRM person originated from IT, as many do, they are perceived by their ex-IT colleagues to have gone native. At the same time, however, they fail to integrate fully with the business, still being viewed as an IT person with a fancy title. They become ‘Billy No-Mates’. This also explains why the concept of having employees report to both people managers and project managers is doomed to failure.

Be aware of the implications of matrix roles, don’t undertake them lightly, and give people particular support and ensure transparency when you do need to create such roles.

Patterns of informal leadership and deferential behaviour are witnessed in any grouping of individuals. If we try to get rid of hierarchical levels, fresh variations will just spring up in their place.

Accept that some people want to lead, other people want to be led, and still others would just prefer to be free to do their own thing in their own way. The most important attribute for leadership is the desire to lead. Managerial skills and competencies can be trained into a person, but the passion to run an organisation cannot. There are as many types of leader as there are leadership situations – the important thing is to have the appropriate style that meets the demands of the situation.

In conclusion

Evolutionary psychology suggests that it is time to recognise who we are and use this information to exploit, and live in harmony with, our hardwiring.

As an illustration, just consider what has happened with the advent of IT. At the outset, it looked as if IT threatened to eradicate small-scale societies; however, it is looking more and more like it will be the very means by which small-scale (virtual) societies are rediscovered. The means will have changed, for sure, but the ends will be the same as they always have been: to belong, to identify with, and to have meaning for others, i.e. to be in tune with our hardwiring.

To be successful, the Transformational Leader will need to embrace this hardwiring at all levels of the pyramid. We will explore this further in the next few chapters.


•   How much effort do you put into being ‘liked’?

•   When did you last take a stand for what you believed in?

•   Have you ever canned a systems project? In hindsight, should you have? What gave you the courage? What held you back?

•   How much time do you spend networking and building relationships?

•   How much internal competition exists between IT and the rest of the business?

•   Do you operate a matrix structure? If so, how successful is it and what could be done to improve it?

More food for thought

•   Nigel Nicholson, ‘How Hardwired is Human Behaviour?’, Harvard Business Review (1998).

  An excellent summary of evolutionary psychology; a convergence of research and controversy, encompassing six different sources of scientific research.