Why teams? Part 2: Two monkeys carrying a log.

Posted by jlubans on July 15, 2011

Not long ago, I came across some science that gave insight into the question of why humans experience a gravitational pull toward teamwork and, by extension, a yearning for an egalitarian workplace.
On July 4, the New York Times offered up a distillation of recent evolutionary research that extends and supports the hypothesis that humans teaming-up is a natural - even biological - way of being.
Natalie Angier, the author of this insightful piece, cites several anthropologists’ research that strongly suggests human values, like cooperation and collaboration, fair play and fairness in resource distribution, have evolved over time. Her article seeks to make a point about pay inequity (which in its most obscene sense, can be found in any herd of MBAs), but the article is far more successful in helping define the elusive aspects of why humans cooperate, why we prefer the egalitarian and participatory workplace to the hierarchy, why we do not mind generally helping each other instead of always maximizing our advantage at the expense of others. Of course, in that herd of MBAs and among even academics, there are vestigial attributes that push individuals (Type A personalities?) to survive; to hell with everyone else.
But, for the most part the Darwinists do see us as different from other primates.
20110715-chimp3.jpg”Two chimpanzees will never carry a log together”. Humans will. Why?
We work with team building rules learned on the veldt, according to Angier: "belief in fairness and reciprocity (the Golden Rule!), a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively."
It is why we will accept a mild sort of hierarchy but will resist mightily a rigid structure dictating our every action and thought.
Some research shows how that resistance toward something patently inequitable (e. g. "one for me and 8 for you") can be reduced with anti anxiety drugs. In real life, those that hold absolute power know just how tenuous their grasp is; it is probably why vodka in communist Russia was always available and cheap.
Teams are not about the survival of the fittest. We have weak members and we have strong members - the best teams know what a team is about and they make use of every member's skills, not just depend on the one or two "stars" to achieve goals. The researcher David Sloan Wilson says that ‘when you have mechanisms for suppressing fitness differences and establishing equality within groups ... it is no longer possible to succeed at the expense of your group." While these “mechanisms” may control the bully or the person who must always be the team captain, team members may overcompensate for the weakest members, protecting the underperformer instead of confronting the problem. Perhaps this kind-hearted avoidance of conflict among team members is more biological than we realize. Of course, really good teams work out differences. Unlike many mediocre teams highly effective teams do not avoid the inevitable "storming" phase of team development; they know the differences have to be engaged and resolved if the team is to succeed.

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