For business leaders, seeking out the best information and practices for employees is crucial, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. Nurturing an organizational atmosphere conducive to the fluid, ongoing exchange of information, ideas, and opinions is equally important. One model for successful group interaction that has been virtually invisible is ironically the most ancient and long-lasting: the small-band foraging culture that characterized our species for the first 90% of our time on earth.
In a continually evolving environment, full of unpredictable hazards, hidden opportunities, and mysterious enemies, the only hope for survival is as a small, adaptable and diversified team. In such a group, each member can fulfill multiple roles, every type of expertise is recognized and valued, information is shared openly, and authority is a flexible concept, distributed according to the needs of a particular situation rather than any kind of traditional hierarchy. Any organization foolhardy enough to attempt massive growth by codifying current practices into rigid dogmatism is doomed to fall, if not at the hands of their more speedy, resourceful competitors, then by the inexorable demands of an environment in constant flux.
You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m going on about “lean,” “flat,” “self-managing” startups, relentlessly outcompeting or even destroying the lumbering corporate behemoths of the previous generation. It’s a common drumbeat in the rhythm of the contemporary business press to think that compact, fast-paced, and adaptable conquers large, slow, and hidebound (and not just because people enjoy a good underdog story).
But “small & speedy” versus “large and lumbering” isn’t simply a story about competition and innovation in the modern corporate landscape. I’m also describing the rise of our own species, perhaps 100 000 years ago, in what would be the tail end of the Paleolithic Period.
As more and more organizations move away from the rigidly authoritarian structures of the industrial age, the cultural practices of our nomadic, highly adaptable, and globally successful ancestors may prove to be an ancient source of wisdom and innovation in the life-long learning processes of the 21st century.
The latest research in anthropology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience indicates that our pre-agricultural ancestors most likely lived as “fierce egalitarians,” in other words, as small, explicitly non-hierarchical communities. Knowledge and resources were freely shared and exchanged, and status was based on expertise and social bonds, rather than political power or physical strength. Let’s look at some of the ways our ancestors optimized their groups for collaboration.
“If I had had to choose my place of birth, I would have chosen a state in which everyone knew everyone else, so that neither the obscure tactics of vice, nor the modesty of virtue could have escaped public scrutiny and judgement.”
—Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 1754
Small Groups with Strong Social Bonds
At a group size of about 150 or larger, it’s no longer possible for each individual to keep track of who’s doing what with whom. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar: “The limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” Essentially, in a small group, an individual’s bad behaviour is almost always noticed, and punished, with public shaming being the minimum sentence, and exile being the ultimate punishment.
Recent research on social media use has confirmed that what’s known as Dunbar’s Number holds true even in the Twitter-sphere. An individual may have thousands or even millions of followers, but the number of meaningful, (i.e. deep, ongoing, reciprocal) relationships among them peaks at about 80, and drops sharply above 150. Of course, you can have ongoing interactions with more than 150 Twitter friends, but these relationships will necessarily be of lower depth and intensity.
For optimal bonding across diverse demography, the number may be much lower. The size of most sports teams, military units, and effective community groups tends to be measured in dozens, and is almost invariably within the range predicted by Dunbar’s Number.
Sociologically, strong group cohesion can be created by combining three distinct elements: shared suffering, a common goal (usually some type of higher moral ideal) and historically, living in unusually close quarters. These three elements were found in abundance in the foraging lifestyle of our Paleolithic ancestors. In the corporate world this can take the form of team-building events, conferences, retreats, etc. Civilian populations in wartime often experience rapid increases in social cohesion almost by accident rather than design. A notable example involved Londoners during the Blitz in World War Two, when complete strangers spent every night hunkered down together in makeshift dormitories deep in the subway tunnels, all avoiding the common danger of the Germans’ aerial bombing campaign.
In seeking to build a culture of collaboration, based on empathy and genuine reciprocity, group size is a non-negotiable limiting factor.
It’s impossible to deny humanity’s large-scale achievements, such as global communications and travel, the consolidation and widespread distribution of an immense body of knowledge, and the mastery of highly advanced technologies like electricity, nuclear power, and digital computing. Clearly, such accomplishments cannot be created by small foraging bands. However, many of modern society’s persistent social ills are only possible due to the anonymity inherent in large urban populations, which permits egotistical anti-social behaviour to go largely unnoticed and thus, unpunished.
In seeking to build a culture of collaboration, based on empathy and genuine reciprocity, group size is a non-negotiable limiting factor. Keep the group as small as possible, and foster a culture of personal responsibility toward the group as a whole, rather than individual achievement.
“With 50 people per band, or 150 per village, everybody knew everybody else intimately, so that the bonding of reciprocal exchange could hold people together.”
The “fierce” qualifier here doesn’t refer to an aggressive or combative social atmosphere, but rather to the depth of commitment that foraging communities made towards fostering an egalitarian society. It wasn’t simply a nice idea, but a core value that was upheld continually and demonstrated in each individual’s daily behaviour. The following list encapsulates the key features of egalitarianism as practised by our Palaeolithic ancestors, and by the vast majority of the foraging societies that still persist to this day.
- Emphatic resistance to any form of authoritarianism.
- Mandatory sharing of all resources.
- Pervasive reciprocity.
- Zero tolerance for excessive pride, egotism, or hierarchical power structures.
- The primacy of the group over the individual as the fundamental unit of the community.
Anthropologist Richard Lee recounts how his friends among the !Kung tribe explain why a hunter is mocked upon returning with a particularly large or fine kill:
Zero tolerance for excessive pride, egotism, or hierarchical power structures.
“When a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or his inferiors. We can’t accept this, we refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”
This focus on egalitarianism is made possible by the use of shame and sharing, two powerful social tools used to govern individual behaviour. The reciprocal sharing practised by immediate-return hunter-gatherers goes beyond giving with the expectation of receiving, and vice-versa. Anthropologist Robert Dentan explains how even an expression of thanks for a portion of meat implies a kind of “accounting” that seems repellent to fierce egalitarians: “saying thank you is very rude, for it suggest first that one has calculated the amount of a gift and second, that one did not expect the donor to be so generous.”
Such socially-derived behaviour control necessarily depends on the strong empathic bonds that can only be formed in small groups.
Jerome Lewis on how hunter-gatherer societies avoid hierarchy or authoritarian rule: “the sharing and immediate consumption of whatever has been hunted or gathered has political consequences because it ensures that individuals do not accumulate more than others. Individuals are therefore unable to use accumulated goods to exert authority or to oblige or influence others to do their will.”
This type of egalitarianism is first and foremost a survival strategy, not any kind of hippie-commune socialism. From a biological perspective, it’s the most effective way to ensure the survival of the group as a whole. Each individual is primarily concerned with the welfare of the group, and what seems like selflessness is actually a sophisticated method of ensuring that everyone else is looking out for you.
Despite western culture’s loudly proclaimed love of individual liberty and equality, true reciprocal egalitarianism, as practiced by hunter-gatherers, offers a much different and arguably greater level of personal freedom. The “levelling” effects of reciprocity, sharing, and an absence of accumulated goods all work against differences in social status. To mimic it today on a societal level would involve making major changes to our post-modern, delayed-return, class-conscious society, and would prove to be quite difficult. Still, here are a few simple suggestions for the modern workplace:
- Limit your hierarchies.
- Create “safe spaces” where anyone is free to say anything, e.g. a regularly scheduled “Talking Circle”, or perhaps an anonymous digital forum.
- Encourage a culture of sharing, humility, cooperation, rather than a winner-take-all philosophy.
Highly mobile, nomadic
For the first 100 000 years of human existence, until the advent of large-scale agriculture, about 10 000 years ago, “the entire number of Homo sapiens on the planet probably never surpassed a million people.” Our ancestors roamed freely over a largely empty world. In such a scenario, competition for resources would hardly exist. Why fight over one area’s limited resources when a few days walk in almost any direction would yield a fresh, uncontested territory to be exploited? The ability to move efficiently across a considerable distance, combined with a very limited amount of material possessions, made conflict and competition between bands largely avoidable.
The advantages of nomadism were numerous: exploiting multiple distinct ecosystems yielded a larger quantity and diversity of resources. A highly mobile community exhibits greater resilience in the case of unexpected hardship, and there is less chance of depleting an important resource from a single area. By regularly moving from one temporary base to another, they also minimized danger from predators, enemies, and even certain diseases.
Rather than compete in a given market segment, why not explore the potential to be found in untapped neighbouring or parallel markets? A particular skillset may turn out to be far more transferable than one could imagine. We already see the application in the rapid proliferation of remote work, the gig economy, and a vast array of side businesses or cottage industries. Mobility, whether geographic or virtual, yields opportunities beyond what any one market segment can offer.
Our Primitive Nature
To summarize, I’m not seriously advocating a return to an ancestral lifestyle of foraging in small bands. But the non-competitive, collaborative characteristics of our Palaeolithic forbears allowed our species to survive and thrive for at least a hundred millennia—a thousand times longer than our most long-lived companies. These are the strategies that made it possible for us to become a super-species, to colonize every habitable corner of the globe, and eventually explore many uninhabitable ones as well, like Antarctica, deep-sea trenches, and even the Moon. They laid the foundation for the agricultural city-state which eventually led to the highly industrial, technological and networked civilization of today. For better and for worse.
So, whenever we hear talk of the latest, cutting-edge practice of “leaderless, self-managing teams,” or “non-hierarchical, fluid group dynamics” it’s worth remembering that what we are actually doing is finally, at long last, turning back to embrace our original, primitive nature. (It’s worth noting that among biologists, “primitive” has a specific meaning. It doesn’t mean simple, but rather ancient. A shark is a primitive life-form, with an exquisitely sophisticated design that hit its peak 50 million years earlier than most of its current competitors.)
I would encourage you to compare your personal practices and those of your organization with what was apparently a universally successful framework for more than ninety percent of our time on earth.
If by and large, your corporate culture is diametrically opposed to most of the key Paleo features, you might want to reconsider how fit, or perhaps un-fit, your organization is for collaboration and adaptation in a constantly evolving environment.
Finally, whenever we consider some new plan, method, or process, we should judge it by its congruence with the “best practices” that have defined us ever since we became a distinct species.