Nature Vs. Nurture 2.0

“It is now time to return to the idea that some people are simply born with potentialities for leadership,” says Nigel Nicholson in his new book.


Book: Executive Instinct: Managing the Human Animal in the Information Age
Author: Nigel Nicholson
Publisher: Crown Business
Price: $25


“I want to help put an end to utopian dreaming in management,” Nigel Nicholson announces, before we’ve even had a moment to sniff the couch, scratch ourselves, and settle in with his new book. “It is time to get back to reality.”

Uh-oh. Reality? This can’t possibly be good. Instinct warns us of impending danger. Blood rushes to vital organs.

In fact, the threat is worse than we had feared. For the essential message of Executive Instinct, Nicholson’s chaotic but appealing discourse on organizational behavior, is this: We human beings are just what we were 100 centuries ago. That is, we are — gulp! — animals, genetically designed in body and mind for survival in the wild.

Trouble is, things have changed a lot in the 10,000 years since we hunted and gathered on the savanna. Our seminomadic lives gave way to organized agrarianism, which later yielded to manufacturing, colonialism, and mercantilism. Sadly, we didn’t change with the times — not in any way that matters. So we arrive at the Information Age to find ourselves, if not obsolete, then at least horrifyingly out of place — proverbial fish out of water. And not just out of water, but hundreds of miles from the nearest pond.

Nicholson, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, is an adherent of the somewhat controversial school of evolutionary psychology. Rooted in neuroscience, this discipline asserts that our minds are not so much culturally conditioned as they are hardwired to survive and reproduce. The “profile of human nature,” Nicholson writes, “was fully delineated long before the dawn of recorded civilization.”


Yup, it’s nature versus nurture — now applied to the workings of business organizations. Expect the sort of minor outrage that Nicholson encountered when he first proposed his thesis in a Harvard Business Review article two years ago. But clearly, Nicholson is right. We are who we are. Rationally, we understand that everyone is born with talents and weaknesses. Culturally, though, that reality has never been very palatable.

The theory is troublesome because most of us believe so fervently in the possibility of self-improvement. This faith is as American as Dale Carnegie. With the right parenting, a great education, and lots of hard work, anyone can grow up to be president. It’s the American way.

Well, tough. Nicholson argues that we can shape behavior, “but only within the limits set by the human design” — a design fueled more by survival instincts than by reason. We seek out challenging situations for psychic buzz. At the same time, we feel a strong aversion to loss. We judge people and situations quickly, and innately see others as being either in or out of our group.

Our work lives are dominated by these forces, Nicholson says. We fiercely avoid failure, yet we can be induced to take risks when faced with highly tangible threats. We enjoy gifts of strategic capability, but we are hamstrung by our capacity for self-delusion.

Take, for example, the question of leadership. “It is now time,” Nicholson writes, “to return to the idea that some people are simply born with potentialities for leadership.” (Uh-oh again.) By accident or design, Nicholson says, people who want to be leaders are more likely to display the alpha-male biochemical profile — elevated levels of testosterone and serotonin. And those who succeed as leaders typically want to dominate and to achieve through competitive striving. They have natural ability, and they are graced with strong physical constitutions.


So, too, with the workplace gender gap: We are who we are. Business organizations today remain mostly male in design and in operation — in large part, Nicholson asserts, because men are genetically programmed to dominate. “Our instincts are pretuned to those behaviors that bring about good reproductive outcomes: for men, winning status in competition with other men; for women, having good networks and the emotional radar to enhance choice.” What’s more, “the disturbing possibility remains that as long as the profit motive drives how we organize, the more ruthless push of male values will continue to predominate.”

Such conclusions — surely upsetting to some, commonsensical to others — appear to be supported by reasonably reputable science. At the least, they are intriguing. The question is, Are they useful? It is tempting, if we believe in our own immutability, to just throw up our hands and call it a life. Nicholson has a better idea: Accommodate reality by changing the workplace. Because “modern business often tries to suppress or ignore” natural human impulses, organizational dysfunction is more or less the rule. Fix that disconnect, and we make the workplace happier and more productive.

So, Nicholson posits, since emotions are primary in our neural circuitry, businesses must stop suppressing emotions in workplace relationships and transactions. “People from the top down must be allowed to be open about their feelings,” he says. Since humans are programmed to operate best in clans of 7 family members, Nicholson reports, and in broader networks of no more than 150 people, we must create more intimate communities within corporations.

Nicholson’s reform strategies tend to be weakened either by vagueness or internal contradiction. On one hand, he tells us that companies would be well served to attract and retain women by making hierarchies more flexible; on the other, he reminds us that hierarchy remains essential to smooth organizational functioning. His underlying lesson, though, is a powerful one: We human beings are peculiar creatures, and we don’t change easily. Better to acknowledge that fact and play to our strengths.

Sidebar: Cheat Sheet

Not hardwired to process evolutionary psychology? Here are the Executive Instinct basics as they apply to the world of work.


Rational decision making? Not likely.

Our emotions are always running the show, directing the focus and biases of our logic. We can maintain our rationality for only limited stretches of time and only with great effort.

The gender gap isn’t just cultural brainwashing.

Men and women have different hardwired psychologies, so it’s normal for them to want to do different things and to do the same things in different ways.

Leaders are born, not made.


Individuals’ genetic programming makes some people more suitable for leadership roles than others.

In organizations, big isn’t beautiful.

People identify first and foremost with the small groups that they belong to. Only through such groups will people make sacrifices for the business as a whole.

The “virtual organization” has a fatal flaw.

People crave social interaction. They will always need contexts in which they can work and interact face-to-face. That’s why the organization in its traditional form will persist in the face of disruptive information technology.