Human Nature: Oxymoron, or Leverageable Insight?

Human Nature: Oxymoron, or Leverageable Insight? 720 540 The Body Corporate

Leaders around the world start their annual journey this week towards corporate missions, goals and objectives. They are surrounded by their greatest assets, their people. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. For many, the greatest challenge remains motivating and aligning their human capital behind common goals. I would like to share with you the secret to getting this right; the magic bullet. But, it doesn’t exist. In its place, I hope you will find my musings at the least entertaining, perhaps even modestly useful.

I was strolling along the beach over the holidays contemplating this enormous challenge. If you’ve read my other work, you will know that I instinctively look to Mother Nature for answers. Even as I did this, I kept getting stuck with the simple term, human nature.

Human nature traditionally refers to those traits or characteristics that are common to all human beings, transcend culture and ethnicity, and distinguish us from other species. They have been debated since time began by philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, ethicists, lawyers, scientists and theologians. Despite this impressive array of intellectual power, the answer seems elusive. Are we a part of nature, or apart? Are we a species governed by the same rules and forces that other natural populations experience, or are we above them? Do we rule the planet, or does the planet rule us?

The term is often used as an excuse. “Due to human nature, we have greed and wars.” “If it wasn’t for human nature, we would all live in harmony.” “I covet my neighbor’s wife because of my human nature.” “I resist my mother’s advice as a result of human nature.” Implicit in the excuse is an explanation that human nature is bad, somehow deviant; something that we might not find in other uncorrupted species.

Does this help leaders around the world with their fundamental management challenges? I think not. A worldview this cynical evokes an antagonistic stance with employees. “You’re all fundamentally, predictably bad, and we have to create an environment that channels you away from negative behavior towards constructive value creation.” I know a few leaders that have articulated this view. One of them once told me, “my job is to protect my people against themselves”. It didn’t work!

So, if we’re not fundamentally separate from nature, should we see colleagues and employees as animals? Frankly, it is my opinion that we would do better to approach leadership with this mindset, especially when we afford ourselves parity with other species rather than superiority. With parity comes respect. With respect, insight and learning. It is my opinion, that we human beings are subject to the same selection pressures as the rest of nature, and we handle these pressures in similar ways. That doesn’t say we’re all the same, or that people’s behavior is predictable. Far from it.

The mammalian brain evolved from the same primitive brain reptiles enjoy today. Their world is governed by flight and fright. Under pressure, this part of our brain takes the lead. Think of the most dispassionate, self-centered survivalism you see in a lizard. That’s us under severe pressure – we default to automated fight or flight responses. Early mammals added the limbic system to this primitive brain, bringing color and emotion into their world. Affection and empathy brought survival advantage as animals formed kinship groups and communities with enhanced collective power. Fortunately, the limbic brain can override the primitive brain, making most work places desirable social environments. Finally, in a massive leap, we humans added a giant cerebral cortex, tripling the size of our brains and introducing logic and reason to our competitive armory. Our cerebral cortex can override the automated function of the primitive reptilian brain, and can moderate the influence of the limbic system.

Let’s return to our leadership challenge with this new understanding of the human brain, and perhaps human nature. How does it help us? A little, I hope. But delightfully, my take-home message is that managing people will remain a complex, unpredictable art. If we can appreciate which part of their brain is dominant at any time, we may be able to guess the responses of colleagues more often than not. Note to imposing leaders: under duress, most employees will default to self-interest; and in stressful times, you are likely to default to duress! Predictably, employees are most likely to act in the interests of the organization when their limbic brains are dominant. Empathetic leaders rule, and affirmation rocks! Intellectual argument will persuade some to follow, but it needs to be well aligned with the emotional and real needs of employees. Finally, to make things more complex, individual colleagues and employees will react differently to the same stimuli. One may be excited intellectually by a challenge that drives others into deep survival mode. So, the talented leader needs to customize style and approach by both situation and individual disposition.

Mother Nature and Science again provide valuable insight for leaders. Frustrating for some, there are few universal guidelines. But for me, that’s the magic of working with human nature – we’re all delightfully different, and in our differences is our collective strength.

Have fun,




(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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