Home Concepts Managing Stress & Challenges Zebras and Lions in the Workplace: An Interview with Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Zebras and Lions in the Workplace: An Interview with Dr. Robert Sapolsky

27 min read

Marcia Reynolds: With production moving out of this country, we have to focus more on innovation and creating intellectual property However, most organizations are fear-based, not creativity based. Or, in your words, they are malevolent, not benevolent, which limits discovery and risk-taking. How do you make the switch from an efficiency-based model to one that is creativity based? One thing you would suggest is to create a benevolent environment. ls there anything else you see that could promote creativity instead of honoring how we are working ourselves to death?

Dr. Sapolsky: One factor is recognizing there is significant transitional cost to doing that. Making these changes takes time. It will take time and money, though the payoff is clear if organizations make this investment. Also, they have to accept that innovation takes a huge ratio; there are usually many stupid dead-ends before finding the big one that pays off. The problem is, this rarely happens. We see this where it takes a generation to die out before new ideas take hold. Like with Dar­ win, no one his age became Darwinists. It was the younger generation that flocked to his ideas. It can be discouraging to be the first in anything.

Marcia Reynolds: I’ve often felt that the hope for our corporations was with the younger generation, but if what you say is true, when they reach eminence, the cycle continues. Sounds like we have to find some way to let young minds have more of a voice on a continuous basis.

Dr Sapolsky: There’s a great book by Frank Sulloway, called Born to Rebel. He’s a science historian. He spent 27 years working on this book. He took something like 30 scientific controversies from the last 400 years, such as the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin, but also nonsense stuff like phrenology and cold fusion. He did intensive research on the lives of four thousand or so scientists who played principal roles in these controversies, trying to come up with variables that could predict who were the intellectual radicals that embraced these new movements and who were the conservatives who fought against it. He found about 9 variables which collectively gave him about 85% predictability. In particular, birth order was most critical, with first-born children more likely to be conformists while the later-born ones tended to be more creative and more likely to reject the status quo. The relationship with their father made a difference. For example, if the father was just a “swell guy,” the son, especially a first-born, was unlikely to ever have an intellectually creative thought. Independent of how you got along with your parents, were they socially progressive? If they were Socratic or Abolitionists, they were more likely to produce an intellectual radical. Had they spent a significant amount of time outside their culture when they were growing up? If we put all of these things together, we can predict intellectual creativity.

Marcia Reynolds: I wish we could know more about people’s histories when hiring them, if a corporate culture wants to nurture this intellectual radicalism.

Dr. Sapolsky: Yes, but you have to be careful when charging such people with a lot of responsibility Really young people might enjoy throwing everything up in the air every three hours.

Marcia Reynolds: We want some control over the chaos, or a method for our madness. We need young minds, but we also need the wisdom that comes with experience.

Dr. Sapolsky: Overall, there’s got to be a more insightful way to do things, and I believe age and experience can give you that. Maybe people just have to do it for themselves, through their own consciousness. People can catch themselves before they become mechanical and make sure they change jobs or change their routine. Maybe the executive decides that every few years you leave a company and start a new one. Its not really clear how we can manage this, but I think if people are aware of what is going on, they can make better decisions to keep their creativity alive.

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