We sometimes hear a rather disheartening narrative about human nature… it suggests that deep down human beings are inherently lazy, driven by greed, and inclined to prioritise their own interests above everything else. These assumptions about human nature have influenced how we structure our organisations and practice leadership. But is this view an accurate reflection of who we truly are as human beings, especially in the context of work and corporate environments?
The darker side of human nature
At first glance, it might appear that the traditional view holds some truth. Throughout history, there are countless examples of collective behaviours that seem to have been motivated by greed and led to catastrophic consequences. Wars waged for the expansion of power, the ruthless colonisation of lands to extract wealth and the brutal enslavement and dehumanisation of entire populations in the pursuit of profit – all bear witness to the darker side of human behaviour.
Even within the corporate world today, the relentless pursuit of profit, often at the expense of environmental sustainability, serves as a stark reminder of the powerful influence of this notion of human nature. Furthermore, at the individual level, there seems to be a growing erosion of trust among people, with self-interest frequently overshadowing collective well-being. The consequences of such behaviour can be witnessed in the cutthroat competition and lack of cooperation prevalent in many corporate cultures.
The limitations of labelling humans as greedy
There’s no denying that greed exists and exerts a tangible impact on the corporate world and our daily interactions. However, is it overly simplistic to conclude that this self-serving inclination is our sole and immutable human nature? I believe such a perspective represents a superficial understanding of the complex human experience.
What is commonly accepted as human nature – greed, fear, and even hatred – are not inherent aspects of our being. They are, instead, conditioned habits that have been imprinted on us through generations and life experiences. These traits represent the byproducts of enduring prolonged periods living in survival mode, a state of being that pushes our focus towards self-interest.
Human habits: Layers that cloud our true nature
It’s important to recognise that human habits are not permanent, nor do they definitively represent who we are at our core. Beneath the layers of these learned behaviours, there exists a brighter and more authentic version of ourselves.
Accessing our genuine human nature can be challenging, especially in corporate environments and cultures that perpetuate survival mode. In such settings, individuals often grapple with persistent stress and anxiety. They work tirelessly, rest inadequately, earn insufficiently, and live in constant fear of job insecurity. In this state of perpetual stress and self-preservation, it becomes nearly impossible for our true human nature to flourish. Ultimately, the learned habit becomes our state of being, where we’re primarily motivated by fear, craving and self-centeredness. While our environments impact how we behave, many of these habits stem from evolutionary traits that have helped us survive long enough to pass on our genes. Being cautious and somewhat greedy can have its survival advantages when living in tribes on the savannah.
Unlocking human nature
Amid the demands of our modern world, one of the most significant opportunities we have is to help individuals – and organisations as a whole – transition away from survival mode. This shift holds the key to unleashing our genuine human nature, which, in turn, can support the evolution of our economy and our overall well-being.
To harness the potential of our true nature, we must create working environments that facilitate this transformation. These environments place as much importance on employee well-being, reflection, and personal development as they do on financial profit and growth. By moving beyond survival mode, individuals can emerge as the best versions of themselves, with the capacity to take ownership, be creative, show up authentically, and exercise autonomy over their work. You can read more about the science of human motivation in our previous blog.
The greatest opportunity of our time
In essence, the most profound opportunity of our time lies in enabling individuals and organisations to transcend the confines of survival mode. By doing so, we pave the way for our authentic human nature to surface, propelling us toward more fulfilling, sustainable, and balanced work environments.
As we navigate the complexities of our modern world, we must remember that we are not bound by the limitations of greed and fear. Beneath the surface, our true human nature – filled with empathy, cooperation, and a shared sense of purpose – awaits its chance to emerge. This is the nature that can reshape our corporate landscapes, fostering cultures where individuals can flourish, and the potential of our collective humanity can be fully realised.
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