In 1977 six young boys commandeered a small fishing boat on their home island of Tonga in the South Pacific. They set out for what they thought would be a short adventure and respite from the boredom of their idyllic island. Shortly into their trip, they hit an angry storm and became shipwrecked on a small, uninhabited, rocky island. This was Lord of the Flies come to life. But it wasn’t. Unlike the popular 1954 novel by William Golding, the boys didn’t devolve into animals. They cooperated with each other for survival and even ensured that an injured boy was taken care of after he broke his leg in a fall. The group was discovered by a passing fishing boat over a year later and reunited with their families.
The image Golding describes masterfully in the novel is still the dominant theory of management today. Managers brought up on a diet of command-and-control hierarchical corporate structures and expectations often have a similar set of beliefs about people. In short, most managers believe that employees must be organized and driven by a strong manager lest they devolve into rouge operators or simply vegetate in place. These beliefs about people, interestingly enough, apply to others, those lower on the totem pole than the managers, but not themselves. This is a clue that the set of beliefs is false.
This view that only through strict organization can people produce is essentially a Hobbesian view of people; that if people are left without oversight, they will devolve into a pell-mell free for all of destruction worthy of a Hollywood thrasher movie. Society will become Lord of the Flies unless someone is in charge.
An alternative view, promulgated by Rousseau, holds that people are generally good and that despite some well documented historical cases, and the steady diet of “if it bleeds it leads” news coverage that emphasizes every negative event, people in the main are good and will not resort to savage tendencies if left to their own devices. Interestingly enough, Rousseau’s view is that the organizations themselves are what allow people to act in savage ways. The very structure meant to control people sets the stage for bad actors – it gives them an environment in which to visit their predations on others.
Looking at the historical examples we’re all very familiar with may provide some instructive input as to why, in some cases, people do horrible things to each other, often for reasons that beggar belief. The most stunning example, in modern history at least, has to be the Holocaust. Millions of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazi regime were systematically destroyed in a fashion so brutal it’s hardly imaginable. It’s easy to place singular blame on the Nazi party leadership and Hitler specifically, but the cold hard fact is that the rounding up and killing were done to a large extent by thousands upon thousands of normal people. And not only Germans but people in occupied countries who wouldn’t have been exposed to years of Nazi propaganda.
Rutger Bregman, in his soon to be published book Human Kind argues that one explanation for this behavior is the social distance created between the predators and the victims. By creating a us vs. them mentality, and enforcing distance by social norms and legal enforcement makes it easier to be loyal to one group while visiting destruction on another. In other words, it was the organization structure that allowed the viciousness to become acceptable.
This is an interesting line of argument if you think of something certainly less evil but much more common; how we treat each other in business. The social distance created by the hierarchy in large organizations means that leaders high up the chain have less and less interaction with the lower levels, sometimes virtually no meaningful interaction. This makes it exceedingly easy to apply motives to those people because they are no longer people; they are “others.” Put this together with the tendency for information flow to be altered at each level and you have a situation where the very leaders who most need on the ground information from the real workers are incapable of getting it. Worse, they are likely to blame, with the help from the middle layers, problems on the workers and not on the system, strategy, or goals.
It’s admittedly dramatic to invoke the Holocaust when discussing business structures, but it’s only through looking at these singular events can we understand what humans can do at the edges. The structures most organizations have in place have a very dark side. We’ve seen many examples just in recent years of storied companies running afoul of legal and ethical standards. In many cases, this is, at least in part, due to the structure that separates people and eliminates their agency to do their job. This structure itself is the breeding ground for the very chaos managers wish to avoid.
If there is anything that the Tongan boys misadventure should teach us, it’s that humans are remarkably adaptable and cooperative. Managers should have more trust in people’s ability to work together if the principles and goals are clear and provide true leadership to help groups succeed on their own. Alternatively, the well-documented examples of human depravity on an industrial scale and recent corporate scandals should be a cautionary note about the dark side of structure and hierarchy and us vs. them cultures.