One of those intriguing I’ve-never-met-but-hope-to-have-dinner-with people is E. O. Wilson. He’s a renowned biologist and naturalist whose expertise is in the micro—ants, specifically—and whose theories apply to the macro—human nature, the world around, and even how to run a healthy business ecosystem. Let me share with you one of my favorite Wilson quotes:
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. It is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”
Woah. Let’s set aside for a moment the threat to our world and explore this as it applies to the work place. Because at Leading Naturally, we believe there is confluence between the principles that govern the natural universe and those that guide our professional prosperity. Coming into harmony with our own nature and natural principles is good for our souls and good for business.
Now, back to that quote… Bear with me, as this will get a little dark before hope breaks through.
First, what are those Paleolithic emotions? Our impulses that served us well while hunting, gathering, and defending ourselves. They sometimes do not translate well into the workplace, do they? Fight or flight kicks in when we are missing a deadline or not getting credit or there’s another non-life threatening issue at work. This leads us to panic, or to pull away, or to lash out. That’s the reptilian brain, the oldest (evolutionarily speaking) part of our brains. The good old brain stem.
MRI’s show that a person’s brain will light up with the same fear responses when the boss says, “I have some feedback to give you,” as when a large bear is gaining on us! The very thing that kept us alive for millennia is now keeping us from growing into personal and professional prosperity and happiness.
The good news is, through conscious practice and a sense of play, we can build new neural pathways. All that is required is to slow down (think highway vs. side streets) and bring a gentle, playful kindness to our work and interactions.
So with a glimmer of hope in the area of our Paleolithic emotions, we move onto the next aspect of E.O Wilson’s assessment: medieval institutions. What he is talking about here are the structures and processes by which entities make decisions and organize power as well as the older technologies which are firmly lodged in place. This could include the way governments are run (by nature, cumbersome and slow), power brokering, and manufacturing systems that deplete our communities and environments more than they contribute to them.
In business, these medieval institutions are strict, top-down structures. These out-dated models emphasize results over relationships, which leads to treating people like machines. Sadly the daily pressure to produce results kills the human spirit in small, subtle ways.
One side of technology is darker: weapons of mass destruction, more ways to extract more nonrenewable resources from the earth, even digital bullying and identity theft. But! That technology is also the internet, connective/smart devices, predictive technology, and the democratization of information.
Read the quote above again. Now, there is hope. And it is in aligning our actions and beliefs with the natural order.
Think of technology as a wonderful opportunity. For the first time since the industrial revolution, machines are finally up to snuff—machines can be machines, and allow humans to be humans. Before, technology needed a serious babysitter—someone on the manufacturing line putting the same handle on the refrigerators, over and over again. Now that human who was doing a robot’s job is free to do things that make him or her the most human: evaluate complex situations, provide care, encouragement and accountability for co-workers, and more.
Looping back to Paleolithic emotions, we do not want to deny them or stuff them down. That’s against biology and virtually impossible. Plus, we would lose the insight they bring. We need to create work spaces that allow us to integrate our brains. The reptilian brain is moderated by the more sophisticated neomammalian brain—your cortex, which moderates morality and regulates emotions, among a myriad of other functions. When we are working in a space that isn’t punitive, we can remain integrated. An integrated brain can be more productive when staring down a deadline, for example, rather than flying off the hook at the mail lady. This is where the practice of bringing playful kindness comes to the forefront.
In this way, we can honor our Paleolithic emotions and use this “god-like technology” to achieve our shared values. When we use machines as machines and let people be people, we can make all jobs matter and all people thrive. That integration leads to an interdependence where each person contributes real value.
I invite you to explore you own emotions. Are they are serving you or not? Can you honor them as the messengers they are? What would that look like today?
Are the structures, processes and technologies you use bringing life or death to the vitality of your business and the people you work with?
How might you be gentle with yourself and slow down (even for a few hours) to give your Paleolithic survival brain space to breathe and catch-up with your human spirit?