Primates and Territoriality

Squirrel MonkiesHumans are territorial primates.

A lot of human behavior can be understood through the lens of territoriality. Everything from land use to kinship and office politics is informed by the ways that humans, as primates, understand what is or isn’t ours.

Many primates live in bands and share territory with other primates. The world gets divided, if we’re going to be unscientific and anthropomorphic for a moment, into “insiders” and “outsiders.” How they, or we, react to these individuals is based on this simple classification.

When interacting with the insiders, we humans (as primates) use precedence to understand our relationships with others. In other words, those we share our territory with are subject to the same social order, and there are rules that govern how we interact. Not to put too fine a point onto it, primate rules of precedence affect how we communicate with those we know and have social relationships with. Primate interaction patterns for insiders affect how we talk to our bosses, our colleagues, and our employees.

Outsiders, on the other hand, do not fit into the same social patterns. Yes, there are still primate-interaction rules, but those rules are significantly different. Whereas we already have established relationships with other “insiders” or members of our band, when we deal with “outsiders” we are faced with a whole different set of questions.

This Land is My Land

Drawing the line between “our” people and “other” people takes a variety of forms. Maybe, at work in a small company, all the people involved are “our” people (according to Dunbar’s number). But when the company gets too large, we move away from this pattern, and start seeing just one part of the company as our own.

It is likely that the “information silo” problem often found in companies actually relates back to the cognitive limit of Dunbar’s number. The silo problem occurs when people working for the same institution align themselves primarily with their division or department. They don’t share information or resources with other institutional groups as they compete for power and recognition.

Dunbar’s number suggests that the number of people with whom we can have stable social relationships is cognitively limited. For humans, this number is usually between 100 and 230. In a large institution, these are the people with whom we share a “territory” in the primate sense. We might not like all of them–we are, after all, competing for precedence (recognition and raises)–but they are our everyday world.

Only Smiling on the Outside

Our interactions with “outsiders” follow very different social rules. Competition is less bounded by social rituals, and more likely to get nasty. Social status in the “inside” group means less, and precedence needs to be established again and again. To a certain extent, that means putting our best foot forward.

Instinctively, we see outsiders as competitors, even if, on paper, they are part of the same organization and share the same goals. We are instinctively less likely to share information and other resources with people who are outside our social group.

The silo problem isn’t just an organizational problem, and its roots can be traced back to our biological and cognitive capabilities. Simply making rules to wish or order the problem away doesn’t work very well.

That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. It doesn’t mean that the informational silo problem is insurmountable. However, understanding its cognitive roots makes it clear that simple solutions just aren’t going to work. Finding ways to recognize and advantage the whole group (department) for working with other groups (effectively sharing territory) will be more effective that simply telling them to stop.


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