One of the services I’m frequently asked to provide for my corporate clients is navigating and solving inter-team conflicts. It happens so often; it’s incredible, and I’m sure you’ll have experienced it at some point in your career, too.

It’s insightful to examine these behaviours through the lens of evolution to understand the interplay of collaboration and competition.

From our ancestors’ tribal behaviours to the intricate interplay of personalities in contemporary teams, the evolutionary perspective reveals compelling insights into the dynamics that define our workplace interactions.

To watch the extended version of this article, click here.

The Evolutionary Roots of Team Dynamics

1. Tribal Instincts

Building Communities

Human evolution was marked by the formation of tribes. Small communities that provided safety, support, and resources for its members.

In the workplace, teams echo this ancestral tendency, serving as modern-day tribes where individuals collaborate for shared goals and mutual benefit.

2. Survival and Cooperation

Strength In Unity

Cooperation was essential for survival in ancestral tribes. Individuals who could effectively collaborate were more likely to thrive.

This evolutionary inclination towards cooperation has transcended time, influencing the dynamics of modern workplace teams.

3. Hierarchical Structures

Leadership In Tribes

Tribes always had leaders, individuals who emerged as guides and decision-makers who everybody looked up to and followed.

The hierarchical structures observed in contemporary teams mirror this ancestral pattern, where leaders provide direction, coordination, and support.

Tribal Behaviours in the 21st Century Workplace

1. In-Group Dynamics

Us Vs. Them Mentality

An evolutionary legacy, the in-group/out-group dynamic, is observable in workplace teams. Teams may develop a strong sense of camaraderie and collaboration internally, fostering a collective identity that differentiates them from other teams.

We also see an element of protection of team members and the leader, as well as resources such as time and equipment, in the same way, our ancestors protected the tribe and resources from both rampaging opposing tribes and predators.

Loss of members or resources (which were incredibly scarce) would fundamentally impact the tribe’s ability to survive. So protecting the team at all costs is very much an evolutionary tactic for survival that’s deeply rooted in our DNA.

2. Social Hierarchies

Leadership and Followership

The formation of social hierarchies is an adaptive trait that allowed tribes to function efficiently.

In the workplace, this translates to the natural emergence of leaders and followers within teams, reflecting the evolutionary need for structured organisation.

3. Communication Patterns

Non-Verbal Communication

In ancestral tribes, non-verbal communication was crucial for survival.

In the workplace, body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues continue to shape team dynamics, influencing trust, collaboration, and overall team cohesion.

4. Cooperation and Competition

Balancing Acts

Ancestral tribes had to strike a balance between cooperation and competition. Similarly, modern workplace teams navigate this delicate equilibrium.

Healthy competition can drive innovation, while cooperation is essential for achieving shared goals. If competition becomes unhealthy, it often leads to squabbling and withholding important information, support, or other resources.

This inter-team conflict can become toxic, hindering overall organisational productivity and advancement.

How Evolutionary Insights Inform Team Building

1. Understanding Diversity

Genetic Diversity in Tribes:

Genetic diversity was crucial for the survival of ancestral tribes. Similarly, diverse perspectives and skills within a team contribute to its resilience and adaptability, fostering a richer pool of ideas and solutions.

However, it’s important to note that we still often have an inherent suspicion of outsiders! Again, this is an evolutionary throwback to when we couldn’t trust ‘interlopers’ until we were sure about them. We see this played out today not only in teams but in every walk of life.

2. Conflict Resolution

Intra-Tribal Conflicts

Tribes faced conflicts, and effective resolution mechanisms were vital for survival.

In the workplace, addressing conflicts within teams requires a blend of communication skills, empathy, and conflict-resolution strategies to maintain harmony.

3. Leadership Development

Emergence Of Leaders

Leaders in ancestral tribes emerged based on skills, experience, and the ability to guide the group. However, that wasn’t always the case. Often, the most aggressive, non-empathetic person rose to the top by trampling over everyone else (think of today’s narcissists or even psychopathic CEOs!)

Identifying and nurturing leadership qualities within teams can contribute to effective and adaptive leadership in organisations. But knowing the difference between skill/experience and ‘winning at all costs’ (even to the detriment of others) is critical. 

4. Collaborative Decision-Making

Consensus Building

Ancestral tribes often made decisions through consensus-building, especially when the leader was out hunting or scouting.

Fostering collaborative decision-making in modern teams ensures that diverse perspectives are considered, promoting a sense of shared ownership and commitment.

Challenges and Opportunities in Modern Team Dynamics

1. Overcoming Tribalism

Balancing Unity and Division

While tribal behaviours can foster team unity, they may also lead to divisions if not managed effectively. Encouraging a sense of shared purpose beyond the team and promoting inter-team collaboration can mitigate tribalism.

2. Adapting to Change

Evolutionary Adaptability

Ancestral tribes that could adapt to changing environments were more likely to survive. Similarly, fostering adaptability within teams is crucial in the dynamic landscape of the modern workplace, where change is constant.

3. Balancing Individual and Team Goals

Individual Vs. Collective Success

In ancestral tribes, individuals prioritising the collective good were likelier to thrive. In the workplace, aligning individual goals with team objectives ensures a harmonious balance that benefits both the individual and the team.

4. Promoting Inclusivity

Expanding The Tribe

Evolutionary tribes often faced challenges related to inclusivity. In the workplace, promoting inclusivity ensures that teams benefit from diverse perspectives, creating a more robust and adaptable collective.

As I mentioned earlier, we are hard-wired, as an evolutionary tool to aid survival, to be suspicious of people who don’t look or behave as we do. So, promoting inclusivity, education, and talking and working together collectively is critical in the modern-day workplace.

The Wrap-Up

Understanding the evolutionary underpinnings offers valuable insights as we navigate the complexities of workplace team dynamics.

From tribal behaviours ingrained in our ancestral roots to the intricacies of modern team collaboration, the journey of evolution provides a roadmap for fostering healthy, adaptive, and resilient teams.

By applying these insights, organisations can cultivate environments that harness the strengths of diverse individuals, promote effective communication, and propel teams toward shared success in the ever-evolving landscape of the 21st-century workplace.

What Next?

In the extended YouTube version of this article, I cover strategies for fostering healthy team dynamics. You can watch it here.

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