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In Business, ‘Survival Of The Fittest’ Is Out

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New scientific research is overturning decades of assumptions about corporate culture, giving the decisive edge to the friendliest over the fittest. Some tips.

Scientist Charles Darwin is best known for his evolutionary theory of “survival of the fittest,” and his conviction that only the most aggressive and predatory of any species thrive.

More than century later, Darwin still has a huge, if unintended, impact on the management style and culture of Western businesses. Because of his work, countless organizations have fostered adversarial workplace cultures, deliberately pitting individuals and agendas against one another to identify the strongest and eradicate perceived weakness.

Recently, however, modern science has turned that long-entrenched thinking on its head. The more current view, based on the Duke study of two of nature’s most successful species—humans and dogs—is that sustainable success is ultimately driven by the “survival of the friendliest.”

It turns out that what really fuels survival is the ability to engage others and build trust through loyal long-term relationships. According to the study, the evolutionary selection for friendliness led to the clear physical and psychological separation for dogs and humans from their descendants. While other hominids had similar brains, tools and linguistic abilities to that of humans, it was humans’ sociability that enabled them to survive and thrive as a species.

Subordinating, intimidating and attacking others, on the other hand, is not the best way to build something that can withstand the inevitable pressures of doing business. The study cited intra- and cross-group friendships as well as democracy as key factors that build an enduring collective identity.

A Lesson for Leaders

For any leader who is committed to building a company that will perform and grow, this new understanding is validating. It is especially important for entrepreneurs, who rely heavily on aligning interests around a shared vision or goal to get their venture off the ground.

While the principles of partnership and collaboration may finally be getting the attention they deserve, that is not to say that robust competition, both internally and externally, is not essential. Everyone’s game is elevated as a result, sharpening innovation, creativity and operating rigor.

That means it falls to the leader or leaders of an organization to find a cultural balance and tone. They need to ensure that competition is framed in a positive and constructive way that brings out the best in individuals and teams alike while retaining a sharp edge of discipline.

For all the analysis and study of management theory, “survival of the friendliest” can be a simple culture to execute and scale. That said, it requires commitment, focus and the consistency that comes with mindful attention to regular internal communication, clear rules of engagement, transparency and accountability.

Here are three steps to ensuring survival of the friendliest over the fiercest in your company:

1. Cultivate courtesy. Your best manners should not just be reserved for clients or others outside your organization. Be consistently kind and respectful to all your colleagues. In my experience, small gestures make the greatest impact. For example, I send company-wide birthday greetings to every single employee. It creates goodwill by giving people an opportunity to engage personally with one another, and with me, and it breaks the ice for future, casual conversations.

2. Reach out. CEOs should actively encourage senior team members to informally engage with others in the sector and around it—a practice that unfortunately has become less common since Covid. Too often, startups and other tight-knit organizations become insular because they are so narrowly focused on the next step forward. Focus is great, but not at the expense of building a broad circle of “friendlies” who can broaden perspectives.

I encourage our employees, especially the junior members, to join the young leaders’ circles that many charitable organizations have in place. It’s beneficial on several levels: the employee has the opportunity to network with others; they get exposure to the importance of philanthropy; and they represent our company in the broader community.

3. Hire up. When conducting interviews, place special emphasis on those with demonstrated skills at connecting and collaborating with others, building relationships, and engaging with the broader community. At our firm, we create video content where I am interviewed about our corporate culture and values; we share that with every recruit to ensure they fully understand the foundation of our company and the soft skills necessary to be successful.

Yes, the hard skill set is critical. But the human qualities that contribute to your “friendly” culture will advance the agenda further and faster.


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