Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Organisational development advisors as a biologist

Organisational development advisors can take more the role promoting the art of a biologist. This is one of the conclusions I drew in discussions with my colleagues from Nedworc Association and research I conducted the last couple of months about Chimpansee behaviour in organisations. Frans de Waal and Patrick van Veen published a number of books about the similarities between chimpansee communities and organisations. Chimpansees are the animals which are genetically the closest to human beings. Ninety-eight percent of our genes are similar.
Chimpansee versus human behaviour
Many of our instincts and intuitive decisions as humans can still be related on how chimpansees behave. In a recent television documentary Frans de Waal provides an interesting example. "When I am in a hurry and snatch a place in a parking plot in front of somebody else, I can always give a rational reason why I did that. However in most cases my intuitive behaviour is different. What if the other car had been driven by a goodlooking lady? Or by a physical strong man? What would have been the behaviour in that occasion?" A lot of communication and co-operation in modern organisations is still based on authentic prehistoric behaviour.
See video: Documentary with Frans de Waal about chimpansee behaviour
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Each chimpansee community is composed of a complex interaction between individuals. The community is led by the Alfa man, followed by the Beta man. The most powerful chimpansee is not definitely physically the strongest or the most intelligent. The leader is the one who is best in building relationships. He is gracious and shares food and favours with fellow chimpansees. Grooming is a normal practice in chimpansee groups. Two individuals have an intemate contact, showing they are good friends. In organisations a similar behaviour can be observed when people have lunch with each other. Eating is a social habit, when you prefer to be with the ones you feel safe and comfortable. This is where informal alliances are created and built.
Social interaction between chimpansees is based on checks and balances. If I do something for you, you do something for me. Most Alfa men get their leadership based on support, they have gained in their community. Credibility in human organisations is gained by relationship building. Investments are reciprocal. It is much easier to get things accomplished in case you have invested time in somebody else.
Hierarchy is the central pillar in chimpansee communities. The Alfa man is the main decisionmaker about food distribution and selection of sexual partners. If the community is stable, conflicts are hardly noticed. The group looks for food, plays and takes time for strengthening relationships. What a striking comparison with human organisations, that are stable!
An interesting habit is how chimpansees deal with conflicts. Disputes take mostly not more than a few minutes. Short after that the chimpansees resolve the conflict by embracing each other. How about humans? There are still people who take their anger to their homes without resolving. Is there something to learn?
Positions start to move in chimpansee communities, when there are external threats (e.a. competing chimpansee communities, food shortage or natural disasters) or internal changes. New chimpansees joining the community, change of leadership, illness or death of chimpansee members make the group to enter a new stage. How is it in organisations? When positions change in the organisation, the whole system starts to move. Uncertainty and change create by definition fear and resistance in organisations.
Act as a biologist - Observe!
Frans de Waal concludes; 'Don't believe what you read in reports or in questionnaires!' There are still a lot of issues we do not to tend to tell the exact truth. 'Will we confess that we are drinking much more alcohol as we say?' As such it is also in organisations. A lot of times the organizational structure in an annual report does not reflect the real power balance in an organization. Financial results, profit and loss balances and client satisfactory figures do not always show the reality. Therefore much more information about organisational develoment can be gathered by observation. How is the behaviour of people? Do they feel happy, relaxed or are they stressed? Who is eating with whom during lunch time? How is hierarchy demonstrated in the organisation? Does the director have privelliges, such as a parking place? And how are the leaders interacting with their staff?
Change agents
Observing is one of the keys in analysing the status of an organization. The truth is embedded in the 'here and now'. Key people in organizational change are the ones who feel committed to the organisation and have a passion to sustain it. They are characterised by a positive, critical behaviour, aware of the changes that are going on. They are called the 'Change Agents'. They are not always the ones high in the hierarchy, but play an essential role to organizational development. They are the interesting people for organizational advisors to work with. If they can be assisted in developing the art of a biologist and relationship building, it can bring an organisation a step further in its process of development.

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