Although primates in general are among the most social of mammal species, very few primate groups are capable of supporting more than eighteen males. Beyond this threshold, interpersonal tensions and relations of hierarchical dominance become unbearable to individuals, causing the groups to split apart. But humans have been living in cities containing tens of thousands of individuals for several millennia, effectively making us the most sociable of all hominids. How did this happen?
Abhorred by some as a means for social domination, adored by others for its apparent success, hierarchy (from ancient Greek hiereus (ἱερεύς) “priest” and arkhe (ἀρχή) “rule”) remains a dominant feature of contemporary organizations. Despite recent trends towards “flatter” models of management, hierarchical order remains persistent. But why?
In Cubed (2015), Nikil Saval offers a refreshing and well-sourced history of the American office, from the counting houses of the nineteenth century to the Google campuses and co-working spaces we know today. I here summarize the gradual changes in office structure and its design elements over the last two centuries, as outlined by Saval.
There is an interesting analogy to be made between today’s corporations and the mystery surrounding the construction of the ancient Egyptian Pyramids. How could a society build such colossal monuments some four and a half millennia ago?
The Greek historian Herodotus recounts that the Pyramids were built with “400,000 slave workers over 20 years.” Along with Biblical depictions of the Pharaos as ruthless despots, this has led to popular narratives portraying the Pyramids as the fruit of the effort of many unwilling slaves whose sole motivation to work was the whip. However, recent archeological excavations have suggested otherwise.
The exercise of power is not something that solely belongs to the realm of government. One could argue that nearly all organizations are prone to power games. Daily examples abound: someone took undue credit for your ideas; you were next in line for a promotion, but a colleague with less experience got the position instead; an unexpected project failure leads to widespread scapegoating; another department was able to persuade top executives to increase their funding at the expense of your own; a company merger brings up the possibility of downsizing in your division and colleagues suddenly start acting aggressively.
Why do people get involved in power games? How can we aspire to deal with them? I will attempt to answer these questions in the following article. We start by examining some classical theories of human nature.
The idea that man is a fundamentally rational being goes back a long way. Descartes believed that our capacity for thinking and reasoning would allow us to discover absolute truths. Kant’s motto for the Enlightenment era, sapere aude (‘dare to be wise’), assumes that men have an inherent capacity for reason, and that they need only have the courage to unleash it in order to become mature and enlightened men.
Over the last fifty years, an ever-increasing volume of scientific literature has started revealing a number of intrinsic cognitive biases in the human mind, thereby drawing a much more nuanced picture of human faculties.
This very weakness is one of the central themes of Joseph Heath’s book, Enlightenment 2.0, which analyzes the increasingly extreme and manipulative nature of North American politics. While the book encompasses many subjects, I will here summarize and extend on one particular aspect of Heath’s work, namely how to deal with our limited rationality.
The first part of this essay deals with examples of specific cognitive limitations which bound our rationality. The second deals with the “fixes” we use to deal with them. The remaining parts reflect on the implications of Heath’s analysis for organizational design.
The following article is the result of a still ongoing personal reflection about the way humans relate to their natural environment. It draws upon a variety of sources and influences. The first part introduces some of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ideas, how these relate to our subjective experience of randomness and uncertainty, and how this allows us to better understand, though not predict, the ongoing environmental crisis. The second part draws on the work of physicists and geologists in order to reframe our perception of time and matter. The third part discusses the increasingly popular concept of resilience, which I again relate to Taleb’s ideas.
William Brian Arthur’s most recent book, The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, is a truly interdisciplinary work that will take you through a historical, philosophical, sociological and economic investigation of technology. I here expose some of its central themes and ideas.