Altruism in organizational behavior

Contemporary evolutionary theory has cautioned us against attributing altruistic motives to people. In standard models of natural selection, nice guys generally aren’t fit—they don’t multiply as rapidly as their more selfish brethren. This argument has often been used to fill the utility function with selfish personal economic goals. But the argument is incorrect; models of natural selection that take bounded rationality into account actually provide strong support for the idea that most people will be strongly motivated by organizational loyalty, even when they can expect no “selfish” rewards from it.

1. How Natural Selection Sustains Altruism

First, what natural selection increases is fitness, the number of progeny of the successful competitor. But in modem society, the attainment of wealth or other selfish rewards is not directly connected to number of progeny. However, let us waive this point and suppose that attainment cf the goals usually described as selfish contributes to evolutionary fitness.

We come then to the second point: each human being depends for survival on the immediate and broader surrounding society. Human beings are not independent windowless Leibnitzian monads. Society provides the matrix in which we survive and mature. Families and the rest of society provide nutrition, shelter, and safety during childhood and youth, and then the knowledge and skills for adult performance. Society can react to a person’s activities at every stage of life, either facilitating them or severely impeding them. It has enormous powers to enhance or reduce a person’s evolutionary fitness.

What kinds of traits, in addition to personal strength and intelligence, would contribute to the fitness of this socially dependent creature? One such trait, or combination of traits, might be called docility. To be docile is to be tractable, and above all, teachable. Docile people tend to adapt their behavior to the norms and pressures of the society. “Docility” perhaps conveys too much a sense of passivity, but I know of no better word.

The argument is not that people are totally docile, nor that they are totally selfish, but that fitness calls for a measured but substantial respon- siveness to social influence. In some contexts, this responsiveness implies motivation to learn or imitate; in other contexts, willingness to obey or conform. From an evolutionary standpoint, having a considerable measure of docility is not altruism but enlightened selfishness.

According to evolutionary theory, to survive as a trait, docility must contribute on average to the fitness of the individual who possesses it. Yet it may still lead, as a result of social influences, to self-injurious behavior in particular cases. Thus, docile individuals may do better than others at earning a living, but loyalty to their nation may lead them to sacrifice their lives in wartime. Once docility is present, society may exploit it by teaching values that benefit the society but are truly altruistic for the individual who accepts them: that is, that contribute to the society’s f itness but not to the individual’s. The only requirement is that on balance and on average the docile individual must be fitter than the one who is not docile.

Let me sketch the algebra that underlies these statements and guarantees their logical soundness. Let k be the average number of offspring of an individual in the absence of docility; d the gross increase in offspring due to docility; c the cost to a docile person, in offspring, of the socially induced altruistic behavior; p the percentage of people who are docile and hence altruistic; and b the number of offspring added to the population by an individual’s altruistic behavior. Then it is easy to see that the difference between the net fitness of altruists and non-altruists (non-docile individuals), respectively, will equal d – c. Hence, provided that d is larger than c, altruists will be fitter than non-altruists. Moreover, a society will grow more rapidly the greater the fraction of altruists, and the increase in average fitness in the society will be (d – c + b) p.

2. Altruism and Identification

One use of docility for enhancing the survivability and fitness of a social system, organization or other, is to inculcate individuals with group pride and loyalty. These motives are based upon a discrimination between a “we” and a “they.” Identification with the “we,” which may be a family, a company, a city, a nation, or the local baseball team, allows individuals to experience satisfactions from successes of the unit thus selected. In this way, organizational identification becomes a motive, which exists side by side with material rewards and the cognitive component already discussed, for employees to work actively for organizational goals.

To show, as has just been done, that natural selection provides a powerful base for socially induced identifications with groups is not to pronounce a moral judgment on the desirability of such identifications. We are all too familiar with the devastating group conflicts that identification with national, religious, and ethnic groups have induced among mankind on innumerable occasions in the past and in many parts of the world today. Our present concern is not to evaluate, but to explain the existence of group loyalties and the important role they play (for better or for worse) in promoting the effectiveness of organizations.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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