The Work Humans Are Wired to Do
Our work is still related to survival, just farther removed.
Posted May 23, 2017
Early humans had a simple, hard job: hunt and gather enough food to survive. These acts of survival, which were once part of daily life for hundreds of thousands of years, have just recently been replaced. Since food abounds and daily survival isn’t a concern in the first world, our daily lives have a slightly different focus. The work we do is related to our survival—we still ultimately work for food and shelter—but in today’s world our actual work is far removed from it.
In short, we inhabit a different environment but the same basic brains. Learning how we’ve evolved to work can give us insight into what biologically constitutes meaningful work.
As humans, we are wired to seek out and feel rewarded by three things:
Work that matters.
In hunter-gatherer times, work was literally a matter of life and death. Now, the stakes are lower and work is more complex. Modern work is divided into minutia: infinite industries and companies, hundreds of departments, unlimited specialized roles. Many workers, and even companies, lose the forest through the trees. We forget why what we’re doing matters.
But employees innately crave seeing the bigger picture: the fruits of their labor.
Kununu reviewers who were fulfilled at their jobs reported an awareness that their work touched larger, more important things than just themselves. Employees said that providing health care to the elderly, working with special needs kids, helping homeless, at-risk youth and feeding the hungry, for example, was fulfilling. A Bon Secours employee stated being “very proud of my efforts within a mission I believed in with complete PASSION! Giving Back!”
But, importantly, you don’t have to volunteer in Africa to get the bigger picture.
An employee at VCU Health Systems wrote that, “Whether you are a doctor or administrative employee or environmental services employee, you are made to feel (correctly) that you are a key part of the team and important to providing services to people in our city.” The key, this employee suggests, is feeling relevant to a larger mission. One King Jesus Ministry employee said her work was challenging and fulfilling simply because she knew her skills “were reaching thousands of people around the world.” But perhaps this notion is best expressed by a cashier at Price Chopper Operating Co Inc who writes, “[E]ach customer is a task. They each have different needs … And YES I love assisting my customers and making them satisfied. It’s not just my job, but it’s fulfilling to me to help my customers.”
The difference between this employee and others is that this person gets the point of their job and that’s what makes it fulfilling.
The idea of meaningful work, psychologist Angela Duckworth writes in her book Grit, is the belief that “What we do matters to people besides ourselves … ‘In this one small way, I think I’m going to make the world better.’”
Connection with coworkers.
Until the last few millennia, no man regularly hunted alone. No female raised children alone. People who worked together were more likely to survive than loners because society keeps us fed and shelters us from enemies. Indeed, the desire to connect is as basic a need as food and safety. And today, even though social interaction isn’t as necessary logistically we want to connect with our coworkers and companies.
For example, one Compass Group employee expressed a deeply rooted desire we all have about work: “[There was] compassion at every point of human contact … We were a family.” Another, from Walmart, reported that employees are “sensitive of everyone whether it is sexual orientation or political beliefs or religion.” A cook at Two Sisters Catering wrote that her company culture was “Almost like a family but less fighting.”
While these examples show how positive a work environment can be, in today’s work world, the opposite may be more common.
For instance, many employees said they suffered from sustained lack of human contact, particularly in favor of electronic communication. One Toni&Guy Hairdressing Academy employee reported an atmosphere that “pits employees against each other.” An employee at Burlington Coat Factory Department Store said that company culture was defined by “Distrust, anger, resentment, laziness, lack of empathy for fellow employees.” At least according to reviews, this attitude appears particularly pervasive among managers. One Visa employee said that managers “don’t care all that much about positive interactions, positive outcomes, or developing teams of people who want to have careers that are fulfilling.”
Since there are so many different job types and industries, it’s impossible to generalize what human connection looks like in the workplace. But the fact of the matter is that human connection is so important that it can even mitigate the misery of undesirable work; a FedEx Office (Dallas, TX) employee explained that there’s camaraderie and human connection among coworkers despite a terrible working environment: “All employees below center managers are most likely miserable, but because of that equality coworkers and colleagues stick together and share humility.”
Not everything we evolved to do manifests positively in today’s workforce. We evolved, like all animals, to exercise the least amount of effort for the highest reward.
Take food as an example: We developed the spear because it was easier to kill things than using our hands. We developed the gun because it was more effective than the spear. Now factory farming is so pervasive because it’s the easiest way to get the most amount of yield from the least amount of effort. The same applies to work.
A recent study by University of College London discovered that, when given the choice, we often take the path of least resistance. Rather than strive toward the best possible outcome in life or work, we frequently opt for the “low hanging fruit,” researchers sum.
Along this same vein, we’re quick to point out laziness in others. One Fire Bus Systems Inc wrote, “Only a hand full of people did any real work.” Another, from Cracker, lamented that “the company cultivates laziness in their management.” A Lehigh County Authority employee summed that her company culture was “Lazy, reactive, not pro-active”, while a Mercer worker wrote, “Outside of my immediate colleagues, there’s wanton laziness and incompetence.”
A General Dynamics – Bath Iron Works employee expressed struggling to define himself against the common, perhaps justified, attitude of the employees as “lazy, old, with little ambition just racking up 8 hrs on the clock to go home and repeat the process the next day.”
The truth is that we’re all hardwired for laziness and we all suffer from it to varying degrees. Instinctually, we root out shortcuts. This is enjoyable, for a time, but it’s ultimately bad for us and for our companies. A Sunrise Renior Living (Cresskill, NJ) employee said that there’s a lot of “people saying it’s not their job.” Notice when you’re saying, “It’s not my job.” Meaningful work is work that we work for.
But there’s a bright side of tending towards laziness; the instinct for laziness actually prompts us to streamline inefficient systems. Just as we developed tools to help us hunt, developing tools to work more effectively can free up resources for more stimulating, fulfilling tasks.
The ultimate piece of learning to gather from all of this is that humans are wired to value the fruits of their labor, to connect with others, and to put in the least amount of effort possible. Recognizing how we have evolved as humans over time allows us to gain new insight into our deeply rooted inclinations and vices, so we can then work more productively and meaningfully.