Work? Let the games begin!

October 8, 2023

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Work? Let the games begin!

Last week I had a delightful meeting with a lady in Melbourne who organizes speakers for various groups of top executives in Victoria. Avid readers of this newsletter may remember that I have presented numerous talks for similar groups.

We had been talking about many things, including the nature of modern work, the formation of high-performance teams, the problems of hidden bias and how they all fit in with what I call “human design specs.”

“OK,” she said, “what is work?”

“That which we should not be doing,” I replied. “At least not in the way it’s mostly organized now.”

Before you look as surprised as she was and stop reading, let me explain.

One of the things that I and other researchers in the field of evolutionary psychology have noticed about hunter-gatherer societies is that they have no concept of “work” in the sense that we use the word. Rather what I and others have noted is that the people we studied saw hunting, gathering, erecting shelter and other aspects of their lives that a Western observer might say constitute work as really play—fun activities.

Yet these small bands—hunting and gathering parties are rarely less than three people or more than seven, about the same size as a functionally high-performing team—are highly productive and nearly always achieve their goals.

Observers have noted that children naturally play in groups of equivalent size.

In H-G societies learning is play organized by other children (“teachers” in H-G bands are usually 8-10 years old). The games mimic what they see adults doing and “work” is simply play transferred to the open savannah.

Further, H-Gs have no word which corresponds to our idea of unpleasant work activity—toil. To them hunting, gathering and the rest, are just extensions of children’s play. Something that you do because you enjoy the process of doing it.

As a result of all my research about life in H-G cultures I have come to the conclusion that their work is play for four main reasons:

• It is varied and requires much skill and intelligence.

• There is not too much of it (about 10 hours a week).

• It is done in a social context, with friends. It’s socializing, not “toil.”  

• It is, generally, optional.

Given that this is standard throughout all H-G bands that have been studied over the last 100 years it’s safe to say that these elements of “work” are hardwired into our design specs.

Other studies—noted in TR—have shown that the further we get from our design specs, the more stressed and mentally ill we are prone to become. It’s not surprising that with the growing demands being placed on workers to achieve more with less and increasing job insecurity (which H-Gs of course never faced) mental ill-health is one of our most worrisome epidemics.

Some organizations—Google is an example—have tried to make their workplaces “fun.” Usually this has failed and often the exercise has been merely exploitative. Fun is not about what toys you put in the workplace or the technological gadgets that people work with. It’s who you do that “work” with and why.

As a society we are gradually coming to the conclusion that in terms of work fewer hours equals the same, if not more, output (e.g. 32 hours per week is as good in terms of output as 40) and that flexibility—the where and when to work—actually is best left to the employees.

Work becomes play when it is done with friends, when it is socializing not “toil” when it’s a tool for learning and not “output,” when process is more important than goals. In fact, when it’s organized like a hunter-gatherer hunting or gathering party it becomes play, it becomes fun and it becomes very, very productive.

In a sense, even though we achieved a lot in a short time, the lady from the speaker’s organization and I were playing together. We laughed, we exchanged commonalities, we talked about dogs and grandchildren. We had fun.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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