Leading a Species Like Us


A strange thing happened to Homo sapiens only 250 years ago; we changed habitat. It was only with the Industrial Revolution beginning in the Western world that we shifted from being hunter-gathers and villagers and moved into offices and factories. Two hundred and fifty years is no time to alter what it means to be human - the way our brains work, the way we process information and our social natures. Behaviour that served us well on the savannah is alive and well in today's offices, corridors and meeting rooms!

When a baby human comes into the world it’s born with a package of behaviours that makes it human. It’s not a question of whether we do or don’t have a package of natural behaviours. It’s only a question of, what is that package? And knowing the package gives two benefits. We can suddenly make sense of why people think and act the way we do and second, we can make better leadership choices.  

In the Hardwired Humans framework – a framework originating from Professor Nigel Nicholson at London Business School – there are 9 behaviours. In summary they describe a species that is social, hierarchical, sensitive about social status, is a face-reading species, that has an emotional brain and where we use emotions to form impressions and make decisions. I’m going to share three areas of leadership where the instincts framework particularly helps: Organisation design, Gossip and grooming and Change management.


Organisation Design

We can design our organisation to be functional – to work naturally for humans – or we can design it to be dysfunctional. If we unwittingly design dysfunction into the system we are imposing an anchor that drags on the team’s and the organisation’s performance. There are a number of design principles to accommodate human nature, and here I just want to cover two. 

The first principle is team size. Human societies have always been built on small family units. Chimps and humans share a rare attribute – that our family bonds last for life. Given this move into workplaces has been ever so recent, we didn’t suddenly lose that need to belong to a small intimate group. We carry with us into work an as if requirement to belong to a team as if we are family. This team of intimates will number around 7, plus or minus two. So, to use this design lever leaders would have people work in teams of around that number – 5 to 8 people. Knowing, that if you structure people to be part of a team of 12, 15, 20 people then you have designed dysfunction into that team. It’s beyond our number of intimates and factions and sub-groups will occur and a manager just can’t service that number of people. At the other end of the spectrum if you have a lot of 1:1, 1:2 groups then you have designed dysfunction for a different reason – 1 or 2 people are too small a unit to feel a sense of belonging and those individuals will often complain of being isolated.  

The next level of design is clan groups of up to 150. This 150 relates to the size of our brain, courtesy of Robin Dunbar at Oxford.  He has found a correlation between group size and brain size (or to be more accurate, the measure of “brain size” is the ratio of brain to body size of a species). The big brain allows us to manage the complexity of relationship dynamics in a group and for us with our biggest brain that level of complexity is up to 150. It’s also the number up to which we can feel a sense of identity.  

So in organisation design we would use that to our advantage – have people in family-sized teams and then departments or subsidiaries or location groups of up to about 150.


Grooming to Bond

All social species groom. They do so in order to bond. The other species groom physically. We, with our greater vocal capability, groom through social chit chat or gossip! 

On Dr Goodall’s last visit she told me, Andrew, two chimps cannot possibly be bonded if they spend no time grooming. It just isn’t possible. I say to business leaders, you cannot possibly be bonded with your people if you spend no time grooming. If overwhelmingly the conversations you have with your people are task conversations to do with project updates, KPIs and sales pipelines, then despite how important those topics are they do not constitute grooming – and your relationships are compromised. 

Grooming is through chit chat – about our interests, what makes us who we are and for sure, what’s going in the organisation. 

Chit chat and grooming is a very pro-social – very social – behaviour.

Often leaders tell us that they found the gossip concept really helpful and that they realised in the past they have made the wrong choices. They had associate coffees, team lunches and chit chat as wasting time. They say that there has been a cost to that choice in the quality of their relationships and now make an alternative choice. 

Change Management

Conventional thinking about change is wrong. Conventional wisdom says that people resist change. But that can’t be true otherwise we’d be still living in caves. Of course it appears as though people resist change. What is it? It’s explained by instincts, and in particular the instinct of Loss Aversion.  

When change is presented to people we have a need to classify – to make sense of the possible impact of change and those classifications are binary in nature – is this good or bad. The big swinger is that if people can’t make sense of the impact when they first hear about the change they will default to the negative as a means of protection against harm. This is because humans, like other creatures, are more driven by the avoidance of loss than the opportunity to gain. 

Knowing about how humans actually respond to change helps managers and change leaders implement change with greater finesse. 



So through a framework of human nature – our nature as a social species – we can make better choices. If we ignore or deny human nature we apply an anchor to human endeavour that acts as a drag on performance. If we know human instincts we can enable people. We can predict what will work and what won’t. We can make better choices.


Andrew O’Keeffe



Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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