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Learning from Baboons

08 May

I’m sitting on a plane flying from Wellington to Melbourne, and find myself urged to write this blog post.

I’ve just watched a National Geographic video called “Stress. – Portrait of a Killer” that I found really fascinating. It looks at research that has been conducted over the last 30+ years into where stress comes from and how it impacts us.

Stress related illnesses have a huge impact on our society today, and together make up the majority of the illnesses that kill people before their time.

I knew that, and was at least somewhat aware of a lot of the material presented in the documentary.

What leapt out at me were some of the conclusions, and a piece of research done by Robert Sapolsky.

Over 30 years he has followed a number of troops of baboons in the Serengeti and found typical baboon behavior (hierarchy driven, top-down, might-is-right, to win you need to beat everyone around you, etc.) which is equated to the behavior seen in many hierarchical human organizations; the documentary talks about the Whitehall Study that show the same stress responses in 20000+ civil servants in the UK as found in the baboon studies in the Serengeti.

Sapolsky recounts the story of one particular troop of baboons that suffered a tragedy about 20 years ago – illness wiped out all Alpha males in the troop along with many others. The animals that survived were the ones who were more cooperative than combative, perhaps it was because the “nice” baboons were the ones who would be cared for by others when they fell ill.

The fascinating thing is that this troop of baboons went on to become a grouping of “nice guys” where collaboration, grooming & feeding each other and supportive behavior is now the norm. When new males join the troop they bring with them their old hierarchical habits and it takes about six months for them to learn that “that’s not the way we do things here” and to fall in with the cooperative behavior.

Part of Sapolsky’s research involves taking blood samples from the baboons and he has found a significantly lower level of stress hormones in the cooperative baboons than in any other troop he has studied over the last 30 years.

He goes on to suggest that human beings could learn from these baboons and create a better society, in which collaboration, autonomy and cooperation are the norm, and as a result lower our stress levels and improve both the quality and duration of our lives.

Being a staunch Agalist I found this speaks to my fundamental beliefs about why Agile practices work – an Agile team is a collaborative environment, where people support each other and all “win” together, rather than competing for power and privilege. Certainly it has been my experience that effective Agile teams are nicer places to work, with generally less stress and greater levels of happiness.

What do you think – am I just an idealist, or can we turn our organizations into happier, more productive places?

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2 Comments

Posted by on May 8, 2011 in Agile, Culture

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “Learning from Baboons

  1. Brad Vines

    May 9, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Absolutely Shane – on both counts! As you know, we’re experiencing this very phenomenon here at LIC. Despite the frantic pace that we have and continue to experience, our staff seem to be pretty happy (where can I organise blood samples to test happiness levels?!). Our management team is also extremely busy and facing challenges that would normally see dangerously high levels of stress, but we are also very collaborative and supportive of one another.

    Another aspect worthy of consideration is the fact that we are all working toward a common goal or set of goals across projects. Our continuous collaboration makes visible and reinforces this, which (I believe) provides inspiration, motivation and security and contributes to overall job satisfaction.

    Cheers!
    Brad

     

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