What Ethology Can Do for Organisations


1)      Introduction

2)      History of the ethological approach

3)      Services offered by Social Technologies Pty Ltd

4)      Affordability of services



In an earlier post I summarised a recent Report indicating that heightened negative emotions and the stress that flows from them compromise mental wellbeing in organisations, reducing productivity. The annual cost to Australian business is $10.9 billion.[1] Substantial productivity benefits would be yielded by maintaining a mentally healthy workplace. Those benefits multiply if one includes morale as a part of mental well being. The Report hints at this when it recommends a “positive workplace”, though it does not provide details, such as how to operationalise or measure this characteristic.

The Report recommended tactics for improving mental wellbeing, mostly curative. The preventative actions, such as exercise, are not focused on at-risk personnel. This is a major shortcoming in the Report because prevention is better than cure.

In the previous post I recommended a complementary two-part strategy: analysing organisations to identify patterns of negative emotions and stress; and, based on this analysis, changing (only) those aspects of the organisation to reduce systemic negative affect. I recommended the behavioural science of ethology as a discipline suited to carrying out this strategy.

Ethology is the biological study of behaviour. In previous academic research I developed methods for observing emotional expressions and predicting their physiological correlates in many types of work organisation, as reported in my book Emotions in Command[2]. The theory helps identify immediate causes of such emotions as well as the larger systemic cause of human nature interacting with an organisation’s structure and processes. The approach is applicable to leadership in politics as well as in organisations.[3]

Observational method is a strength of ethology. While the mental health profile of an organisation can be approximated using questionnaire instruments such as the Kessler 6 Test for anxiety and depression, survey instruments alone are not reliable. That is partly because of a widespread reluctance to disclose mental ill health. In a recent study of 15,000 young Australians, over 60 per cent of those suffering mental conditions were reluctant to seek information or support, even from online and telephone counselling hotlines.[4] Ethology can complement these tests by identifying emotional stress points that can cause or exacerbate mental conditions. Typically the cause is an individual or procedure or recurring situation that induces negative emotions. Examples are the humiliation suffered by a manager whose authority is undermined or the fear and sadness in counter staff subjected to client aggression. Where observation is difficult these behaviours can be reported via interview.

History of the ethological approach

“Ethology” is not a word commonly used in management studies but ethological ideas have a deep connection with organisational analysis and practice.

1)      Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), the founder of the scientific management movement, pioneered quantitative analysis of work roles employing ethology-like naturalistic observation. However, Taylor’s theories were deficient in the area of social relations.

2)      The German social scientist Max Weber (1864-1920), whose work is foundational to the sociology of organisations, drew on personal observations of organisation life. His concept of charismatic leadership overlaps behavioural elements of dominance. This is contrasted with his concept of legal-rational administrative behaviour that is relatively detached from dominance and attendant emotions.

3)      The Human Relations movement of management research that originated with the Hawthorne studies (1924-1932) conducted by Elton Mayo (1880-1949) also used field observations to test hypotheses and make discoveries. Its emphasis of natural human groups and interpersonal communication resembles ethological theory.

4)      Abraham Maslow’s (1908-1970) influential theory of the hierarchy of needs had origins in his study of non-human primates,[5] presaging the use of primate models in management theory.[6]

5)      Antony Jay, who popularised management theory by co-writing the British television series Yes Minister, adopted an explicitly ethological perspective in his earlier book Corporation Man (subtitle: Why His Ancient Tribal Impulses Dominate the Life of the Modern Corporation).[7] His approach was developed further by American social scientists Gary Bernhard and Kalman Glantz.[8]

6)      Lionel Tiger, an American sociologist, has advised the U.S. Department of Defence on small-group dynamics based on his ethological study of “male bonds” evolved in hunting bands.[9] With anthropologist Robin Fox he identified some of the stresses incurred when people are constrained by artificial bureaucratic structures.[10]

7)      Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) explained the findings of his famous obedience studies by referring to evolved predispositions and dominance, drawing on early ethologists. He noted that authority, like dominance, is MODULAR, the same behaviours being shown at all levels in a hierarchy.[11]

8)      The “body language” movement began in the 1970s. In Australia Allan Pease made behavioural research on self presentation accessible to a broad public with advice on a range of issues from making a good impression through posture and dress to avoiding cultural misunderstandings.[12]

9)      Bob Deutsch, an American alumnus of the Max Planck Research Centre for Human Ethology, has for many years consulted to VIPs on self presentation, including the Emperor of Japan.

10)  In 1990 Frank Salter consulted to the Australian Taxation Office and the Family Court of Australia upon completion of his doctoral dissertation on organisational ethology. The subject in both cases was aggression shown by the public to counter staff.

11)  Evolutionary psychology, a field overlapping ethology, is inspiring a rethink of management based on social instincts. Nigel Nicholson, a professor at the London School of Management, is a leading theoretician in this endeavour.[13] The Australian human resource professional Andrew O’Keeffe is applying evolutionary psychology in this country, [14] advising on such topics as overcoming internal rivalry, organisational change, creative uses of gossip, and performance appraisal.

12)  In their book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman and colleagues argue for innate responses to leadership that explain the benefits of emotional intelligence. They identify six leadership styles, each with its emotional impact on the group (“resonance”).[15]

13)  Behavioural ecology also offers insights bearing on management, for example 2006 research by the Canadian research group led by R. E. White.[16]

14)  In 2008 Mark van Vugt, Robert Hogan and Robert B. Kaiser presented an evolutionary theory of leadership and followship that attributes a good deal to individual differences in personality.[17]  The leadership-followship combination likely evolved because it yielded more competitive groups and thus greater genetic fitness for all group members.  Hogan is the author of the industry-standard Hogan Personality Inventory, which also takes into account biosocial factors.[18]

15)  (Many of these management applications are reviewed in Emotions in Command.[19])

Summary of ethological services

The above precedents indicate that ethology can help identify stress and several other behavioural issues in organisations. Ethology deserves a place alongside other disciplines in assisting the management process. That place is not yet fully developed because ethology is not a mainstream subject in the social sciences or business schools. However the discipline already has some uses. The following services are offered by Social Technologies consultancy.

1)      Teaching ethological theory and methods. These have direct applications to management and organisational design, and offer new perspectives to HR and L&D professionals. Subjects include:

a)      Theory: Evolved sociality compared to the artificiality of formal organisations.

b)      Theory: Emotions and hierarchy.

c)      Theory: Types of directives with different emotional impacts.

d)     Theory: Aggression, bullying, conflict.

e)      Theory: Gender and sex differences. Signals and releasers. Scope for self-presentation.

f)       Theory: Gender. Social technologies to enhance the authority of men and women.

g)      Theory: Stress, its causes advertent and inadvertent; use in power games; and counter-measures.

h)      Theory: Motivations and how they are engaged by organisations.

i)        Theory: Ethnic ties and conflict; signals and responses; building multi-ethnic teams.

j)        Method: Choosing observational categories (what to look for). Obtrusiveness. Qualitative versus quantitative.

2)      Leadership development by coaching or teaching. Subjects include:

a)      Self presentation, behavioural and non-behavioural.

b)      Effective authority styles compatible with personality.

3)      Stress analysisidentifying negative affect and its behavioural and environmental causes, including architecture and office layout. Training, coaching and change solutions.

4)      Training in body language (reading others, knowing and shaping yourself).

These services can only be delivered by trained professionals. Unfortunately ethology is not taught in departments of public administration or business studies, which severely restricts the supply of service providers. Little wonder that ethological services are yet to be packaged for the management market. The development of a full range of targeted ethological solutions must await the establishment of relevant courses across the disciplines that provide training that bears on management.

Cost of observational methods

Quantitative observational methods are costly.[20] A serviceable substitute is qualitative analysis performed by a trained organisational ethologist whose judgments compare well with quantitative analyses,[21] another reason to introduce ethology courses in business schools. Another way to reduce costs is for the ethologist to collaborate with the organisation’s human resources professional or other officer familiar with the organisation’s structures and personnel.

A useful introduction to the subject is to consider a particular behavioural aspect and how it affects work relations and can (or can’t) be managed for desirable ends. One such behaviour is eye contact (gaze). That is the subject of the next post.

Frank Salter


[1] PriceWaterhouse Coopers (2014). Report: Creating a mentally healthy workplace. Canberra, National Mental Health Commission, 20 March: 46 pp. Available at: www.headsup.org.au

[2] Salter, F. K. (2008/1995). Emotions in command: Biology, bureaucracy, and cultural evolution. New York, Transaction.

[3] Stewart, P. A., F. K. Salter and M. Mehu (2010). The face as a focus of political communication: Evolutionary perspectives, experimental methods, and the ethological approach Sourcebook for political communication research: Methods, measures, and analytical techniques. E. P. Bucy and R. L. Holbert. New York and London, Routledge: 165-193.

[4] Patricia Karvelas (2014). Girls twice as likely to be mentally ill. The Australian, 18 June, p. 5. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/girls-twice-as-likely-to-be-mentally-ill/story-e6frg8y6-1226957912849#mm-premium.

[5] Maslow, A. (1940). “Dominance-quality and social behavior in infra-human primates.” Journal of Social Psychology 11: 313-324.

[6] White, R. E. and B. D. Pierce (2000). “On Maslow, monkeys, and evolution.” Academy of Management Review 25: 696-701.

[7] Jay, A. (1975/1971). Corporation man; who he is, what he does, why his ancient tribal impulses dominate the life of the modern corporation. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

[8] Bernhard, J. G. and K. Glantz (1992). Staying human in the organization: Our biological heritage and the workplace. Westport, CN, Praeger.

[9]Tiger, L. (1989/1969). Men in groups. New York and London, Marion Boyars.

[10] Tiger, L. and R. Fox (1989/1971). The imperial animal. New York, Henry Holt & Company.

[11] Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. An Experimental View. New York, Harper & Row, pp. 23-5, 28-30.

[12] Pease, A. and B. Pease (2011). Body language in the work place, Pease International.

[13] Nicholson, N. (1998). “How hardwired is human behavior?” Harvard Business Review(July-August): 135-147. See the consulting website: http://hardwiredhumans.com.au/

Nicholson, N. (2000). Executive instinct: Managing the human animal in the information age. New York, Random House.

[14] O’Keeffe, A. (2011). Hardwired humans: Successful leadership using human instincts. Sydney, Roundtable Press.

[15] Goleman, D., R. Boyatzis and A. McKee (2013). Primal leadership, with a new preface by the authors: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence, Harvard Business Review.

[16] Pierce, B. D. and R. E. White (2006). “Resource context contestability and emergent social structure: An empirical investigation of an evolutionary theory.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 27: 221-239.

[17] Vugt, M. V., R. Hogan and R. B. Kaiser (2008). “Leadership, followship, and evolution.” American Psychologist 63(3): 182-196.

[18] http://www.hoganassessments.com/content/hogan-personality-inventory-hpi, accessed 16 July 2014.

Hogan, R. (2007). Personality and the fate of organizations. Mahway, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum.

[19] Salter, F. K. (2008/1995). Emotions in command: Biology, bureaucracy, and cultural evolution. New York, Transaction, pp. 99-107.

[20] Quantitative analysis of the distribution of emotions in an organisation is most feasible for medium and large organisations using limited sampling of work groups.

[21] Part of the training is to judge which research questions are amenable to qualitative methods.