Workplace culture is a mess, where inefficient philosophies rule the day. Memetics play a large role – learn how and why.
Humans are social animals, and we naturally form groups with leaders. This is our ancestral condition; think of tribes of hunter-gatherers, with an alpha male and several followers. This pattern of social organization is essentially unchanged throughout human history.
Our social tendencies are genetically coded, including the tendency towards dominance hierarchies. Memetics, as always, are in competition with genes for guiding our behaviors. But genetics and instinctual drives act as a selection factor for the memes we adopt and replicate.
Genetics & Instinct In The Workplace
Our genetics and instincts bias us to select leaders based on ancestral characteristics. These include, but are not limited to:
- Muscle mass
- Vocal register
- Facial symmetry
The problem, of course, is that these characteristics that signaled leadership qualities in the ancestral environment are often irrelevant in the modern environment. So people in positions of leadership in the modern environment are frequently ill-suited to actually performing the job.
Consider a non-tech firm that nevertheless relies heavily on technology. The importance of technology within any given industry is ever-increasing. Yet those who are technically capable are often lacking in ancestral signifiers of leadership, such as physical strength and sociability. Within the organization, this will bias corporate leadership to discount the contributions of the tech department to the firm as a whole, and prevent the technically gifted from reaching the upper echelons of management. This effect is less pronounced in technology-first enterprises, but they develop their own forms of genetic and instinctual bias.
On a base level, elevation to leadership roles is often correlated more with ancestral leadership cues than actual ability. A minority, 14.5%, of American males are over six feet tall. Yet among Fortune 500 CEOs, the share is a majority – 58%.
This causes problems for two reasons:
- We are prone to discount the effect of luck or endowment on our successes. This means that the leaders selected for reasons other than their own competence may consider their instinctive drives the path to success for the enterprise, when in reality they’re not suited to the job
- Elevating less-qualified candidates to leadership roles for reasons other than their competence leads to inferior memetic selection from the leaders of the enterprise, as they are less knowledgeable and/or competent
Memetics & MBA Bullshit
The memes used to lead our enterprises are not those best suited to enterprise success. Memetics dictates that what ends up being viral and sticking around in our culture is not what is true or what works, but what replicates.
Workplace culture and leadership philosophies are those memes that are best at causing themselves to be spread, not those that are most efficient or profitable.
If you’ve worked a corporate job, you’ve probably had the misfortune of sitting through some sort of pop-psychology exercise. These are often about “finding your strengths”, “unlocking your potential”, “enabling open communication”, or some similar buzzword-laden garbage.
This stuff is so widespread because it sounds good. It is shallow and ineffective, but it seems true on the face of it. We’re much more likely to believe in hand-wavy rubbish like that than we are to look at scientific results, and so it’s the hand-wavy rubbish that is repeated in C-suite literature and “leadership seminars”.
Another factor is the path dependence of workplace memeplexes. Essentially: it is easier to absorb new memes if they’re similar to ones we have already internalized. This is the cause of workplace inertia. Think about how useless it is for many modern job functions to actually be in a physical office. Most work in the information sector can be done remotely, with little disruption to process and even potential productivity increases. Yet firm after firm has managers insisting on “face time”, because humans are biased to distrust what they can’t see happening in front of them. That’s the genetic and instinctual bias. And if you’ve always worked that way, and your managers and the company have always enforced it, who are you to change it? Best to keep what’s been working so far, even if it’s inefficient.
As enterprises grow, the risk of harmful memes becoming permanent fixtures in workplace culture grows with it. This is what Jeff Bezos has been so hawk-eyed in guarding against at Amazon. He terms new enterprises, free of shackles and tradition, “Day 1” companies; “Day 2” companies, by contrast, are those that have become locked in to inefficient cultures. From his most recent shareholder letter:
“As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.
A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.”
The force of MBA bullshit lies in its memetic supremacy as compared to rational workplace cultures. If you’re starting your own enterprise, be sure to guard against this. If you’re working for others, keep an eye out for harmful memes in your firm’s management. See if there are ways to influence them – reading this blog is a good start. And if not, start looking for the exits.