Instinctual Biases at Work: Can the Social-Only Company Succeed?

Recently I had the chance to attend an office visit in a large multinational company that moved recently into a new building. The company took advantage of the change to switch from an open-space policy into a total no-desk-of-your-own policy.

This means that no one, including the top management, should have their own fix working space; by the contrary, the company decide to promote ultimate flexibility and social interaction inside and outside the company. The company is also saving money because, as it claims, “our people should be out there with the customers most of the time anyway.” Is, however, such a totally social policy the right way to lean into the world of work of the future?

We humans are so much more than meets the eye. One of the first classes we had when I started my Trainer of Professional Development course in 2013 was Emotional and Social Intelligence. One of the things that caught my attention was the classification of human instincts. Basically we, humans, are driven by three types of instincts. The first is called Self-preservation: we instinctually do whatever necessary to survive, breathe, have access to water, food, sleep, shelter and safety. The second instinct is Relational: we strive to be loved, to experience connection and to reproduce our genes. And the third instinct is Social: we feel much better when we belong to a pack, for it provides us with a sense of security for ourselves and our beloved ones that we could not achieve on our own.

Another important thing to say is that, while we all have all three instincts, some of us have a propensity or preferential bias for one of them. In fact, the general approximation is that up to 50% of people are driven mainly by their self-preservation instinct, some 30% to 35% by the relational and the rest, a handful of 10% to 15%, by the social instinct.

How do people with an instinctual bias behave?

Taking a step forward in understanding the instinctual biases, here is how people with a given instinctual bias behave.

People who are mainly driven by their Self-preservation instinct are prone to focusing their attention mainly on resources: they want to have control, influence and decision-making power over anything that could influence their well-being. It’s a me-me relationship. You can recognize them by their attachment to “things:” This is my cup, my bed, my space, my car, my house, they would often claim. Where do we go, when do we leave, how long will we be there, where will be the toilets, where will we eat?

Self-preservation has nothing to do with selfishness; people with a self-preservation bias only seek to make sure that their basic survival needs will be met under any circumstances and, ideally, in line with their idea of accomplishment. Such people may face massive challenges in letting others plan for them and they experience anxiety when they are not sure they will have access to what they need – particularly when some sort of performance is subsequently expected from them.

The second type of instinctual bias, the Relational, says: If you, my VIP, are with me, I can do anything. My needs will be met through you and you are here with me and for me. It’s a me-you relationship. That’s why relational people deal far less with the logistics of a trip or encounter, as long as they have someone to share it with. What they are after is love, attention and connectivity. Such people will have a propensity to build strong connections and see groups as collection of one-on-one relationships.

Last but not least, the social instinct bias says: I really don’t care about myself or my one-on-one relationships as long as we as a group are in it together. As long as I understand my place and the group is cohesive and provides me with security and recognition, I will thrive and sacrifice myself for the sake of the group. It’s a me-them relationship. While they may be ideal community leaders, such people face a major challenge in developing a sense of self, in respecting their own needs and in giving healthy boundaries; as long as their strive for external recognition is met by the group, this energetic fuel can pump them up for quite a long time – usually until their health and personal relationships collapse under the burden of too many social committments.

Can a company betting on social only be successful?

Back to the topic at the beginning of this article – the social company. By removing people’s right to their “own” desk and space at work, companies do nothing but ultra-leverage people’s natural social instinct. We cannot be fully surprised why companies do so: they are social constructs and they last pretty much as long as their people last with them. Besides, who wouldn’t love employees with a massive sense of the group mission (and a diminished sense of self)?

The problem is that we, humans, are not only social beings. To perform optimally we need to:

  • A. become self-aware of our instinctual biases, whichever they may be, and
  • B. to work with them by stepping out of the comfort zone of our primary instinct and start exploring and developing the strengths of the other two instincts where we are not so naturally good.

By doing so we can reach an inner balance that helps us to genuinely flex our approach function of the situation and the reality in front of us. On the other hand, if we leverage only one instinct, we might face the surprise that, when confronted with a client who has a different bias than ours, we might not have much to offer them in terms of empathy and mutually-beneficial solutions. More, what we refuse to see (in the case of the ultra-social company the suppressed self-preservation instinct) goes into our shadow (that place where we are ashamed to go because we were told not to, even though it’s a part of us). The same part of us returns when a vengeance when we need it the least, usually under the form of unreasonable staff expectations for remuneration and personal benefits.

As always, it’s easier to run a marathon on two legs – in this case, on three instincts brought to light by self-awareness and consciously trained for success in social interactions – than on one. If it wasn’t so, managers of the ultra-social company wouldn’t sneak around to grab a piece of an empty meeting room corner to place THEIR things in there. At the end of the day, regardless of what we claim on the outside, inside we are all prety much the same.

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The best way to gain, retain, and restore your critical distance as a woman CEO is to have a faithful guide, thought partner, and inspiring challenger by your side. This is what I am for women CEOs. If you are facing major developments in your business or in your career this year, we should talk. Please book or have your assistant book a no-strings-attached free 30-minute CEO exploration call with me; we will get to know each other and I will be thrilled to spot how I could be of your service in 2024 and beyond.
Cristina Muntean
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Let's Talk

The best way to gain, retain, and restore your critical distance as a woman CEO is to have a faithful guide, thought partner, and inspiring challenger by your side. This is what I am for women CEOs. If you are facing major developments in your business or in your career this year, we should talk. Please book or have your assistant book a no-strings-attached free 30-minute CEO exploration call with me; we will get to know each other and I will be thrilled to spot how I could be of your service in 2024 and beyond.