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Why people do the things they do

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 27, 2006
Filed in Strategy

Christmas reading has help me stumble across two very different essays with the same theme: people are enormously influenced by their social ties. Anyone reading this blog won’t be surprised by that theme but these essays present two very different contexts. The first is called Knowing the Enemy by George Packer, which was recently published in the New Yorker. It’s a lengthy treatment on how social scientists are re-conceiving the way the US government might approach insurgencies. The “War on Terror” moniker has mislead policy makers and commanders in thinking primarily from an armaments and military force perspective. The essay suggests that in order to combat insurgencies we need information, influence and the ability to connect people in different ways.

The other essay is called Darwin on the Bounty: The How and the Why of the Greatest Mutiny in History by Michael Shermer. It’s a chapter in his book, Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown. He argues that Christian Fletcher did not lead the mutiny merely to rebel against the poor treatment meted out by Captain Bligh. Rather, he was keen to return to Tahiti and the life and family he established there. Shermer’s underlying theme is an evolutionary one emphasising the deep motivation of people wishing to maintain their close social ties. In the prehistoric past hanging with the ones you love was an excellent strategy for perpetuating one’s gene pool—they tended to be your relatives. More recently these small family groups have become more complex and now include other affinities yet the evolutionary habit remains and stays with us as a strong motivating force.

What does this mean for organisations? Well I think one of the social scientists from Knowing the Enemy, Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, said it best in his tips for company commanders (read, managers) about to be deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Know your turf—Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader, and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.

[thanks to Les Posen for the link to Knowing the Enemy]

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

4 Responses to “Why people do the things they do”

  1. peter vajda Says:

    You wrote “I think one of the social scientists from Knowing the Enemy, Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, said it best in his tips for company commanders (read, managers) about to be deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan: Know your turf—Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader, and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.”
    me: unless, of course, ego and hubris get in the way….more common in business and politics than we are willing to admit…

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Yes, that is a good point Peter. Perhaps understanding ego and hubris should be part of Knowing your turf? These human characteristics will always be there and I chuckle to myself when people say things like, “putting egos aside …”

  3. ken Says:

    Could the popular know-your-enemy be a modern, reductionist, soundbite on SunTzu’s ancient military wisdom…
    “Know the enemy and yourself, and your victory will never be in danger, Know the ground and the weather, and your victory is certain” — Sun-Tzu”
    And he echoes the tragic hubris with “To win without fighting is best” — Sun-Tzu
    If you like Schermer, there’s 20hrs of video from the beyondbelief2006 conference on their web site, which makes for far more entertaining viewing than the tripe on festive tv 🙂

  4. peter vajda Says:

    Yes, Shawn, and moreso, perhaps understanding ego and hubris is more akin to “knowing thyself” which precedes knowing your turf…but for mmost folks, it’s much “safer” and familiar to explore the”outside” as opposed to exploring the “inside.”

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