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Published: April 1, 1997

 
 

What the Heck Is a Company, Anyway? Reflections on Identity

The effects of a fuzzy identity can be felt on the bottom line as trouble marketing brands and keeping customers as well as higher employee turnover, erratic decision-making, a lack of esprit de corps and more incidents of pilfering and sabotage. In the mid-1980's, a Lou Harris poll of middle managers found that 65 percent felt that salaried employees were less loyal than they were 10 years before. Another 80's-era survey found 92 percent of executives agreeing that loyalty to oneself had to come before unquestioning loyalty to an organization.

The problem for a corporate leader, though, involves more than the challenge of today's conditions. Unlike other institutions, the corporation rests on a principle that undermines group loyalty and yet somehow managers must cope: Corporations are supposed to serve, and be made up of, living exemplars of rational economic man, that cool-as-a-cucumber calculator of his own interests. However much a company may push teamwork and mission, the supposed reason the employees arrive every morning -- to get the best salary for the least trouble -- works against those goals. From the standpoint of rational economic men and women, group identity has to be a fiction. They come to work for the pay and the benefits, and their primal passion for their families, their Italian, British, African-American or French heritages and the Green Bay Packers are all left at home. Some anthropologists are convinced that an entity as abstract and far-flung as a corporation simply can't summon up powerful emotions.

On the corporate leader's side of the ledger, though, is the fact that nobody really is rational economic man or woman.

People like being part of a group, as do most of our ape and monkey relatives. For all our species -- and thus, it seems likely, for our common ancestors way back on the evolutionary line -- group living is the equivalent of sharp teeth for a lion or powerful flukes for a whale. Functioning as a group allowed early humans to kill prey that no single hunter could bring down, for example. It allows everyone in the group to benefit from food discovered by one member, and grants to each member the protection of the whole. Indeed, so important is group living to a member's survival that many primatologists believe our vaunted human intelligence evolved to perceive and solve fine social problems -- Is he angry with me now? Where do I stand with her, compared with how I stood yesterday?

According to the animal behaviorist Frans de Waal, for example, leadership in a chimpanzee troop comes not to the meanest and nastiest animal, but to the one who can best make and keep friendships and alliances. Mr. de Waal believes humans, the chimp's close relatives, have also evolved strong instincts to form a tightly knit group and spend a lot of time keeping it harmonious -- a tendency that corporate managers can learn profitably to harness.

Prof. Robin Fox, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., believes this drive toward "strong sociality and group identification" has been part of the human psyche for millions of years. "This is reflected in the earliest of hominid societies, the australopithecines, from at least three-and-a-half million years ago," he writes. "Small groups wandered the east African savannahs, scavenging and catching small game. As the scale of hunting increased with the advent of Homo erectus, the two-million-year upsurge in brain size and social complexity took off on its upward trajectory. By the close of the paleolithic [age], larger bands making up 'linguistic tribes' (up to 5,000 individuals) with ceremonial cave centers emerged. Then came the neolithic revolution -- agriculture and herding -- and the rest, literally, is history.''

 
 
 
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