Rat Park — Implications for High-Productivity Environments — Part II

Loreto and Kayak Cat

Mellow sea kayaking — outside Loreto, BCS, Mexico

One of the interesting things about Rat Park is the fact that doesn’t seem to be recognized explicitly is that the rats were in a plywood box in Dr. Alexander’s office.  They were happy rats, for lots of reasons — adequate food, fun places to play, and places to raise lots of little rat-babies.  All looked after from a benevolent rat-God, staring down from above.  Who would do cocaine in a circumstance like that?

Yet one of the key benefits of Rat Park, that had to contribute to domestic Rat Bliss was the fact that they didn’t have to worry about being eaten.  I’m not so much on the animals-are-super-intelligent-all-the-time spectrum that I would assume that rats have loads of consequentiality in their thinking.  But I do believe that rats are empathetic, connected creatures, sharing information in ways we probably don’t completely understand yet.  And one of the things that has to contribute to rat stress is the overhanging worry of a larger animal eating them.

Why does this matter?  Because rats are aware that they CAN get eaten.  I’ve never raised them, but I have raised chickens, and chickens are keenly aware after only one incident if you’re the axe-murderer.  The word is out in chicken-land when you come around.  I happen to believe that rats don’t have long-term memory, precisely because, as a food species, lots of rats and their brethren and sisters DO get eaten.  And it’s likely that their mourning period is extremely short — the colony reorganizes around the remaining rats, and gets on with business.  I read somewhere that you’re never more than 90 feet away from a rat at any given time.  So the strategy must be successful.

Yet rats are empathetic.  They likely have very well-developed mirroring behaviors, and they, as mammals, have some level of emotional empathy.  They have some plug in their brain where they need to be connected.  And when they’re not, they drink cocaine-laced water until they die.  If they didn’t have that, they’d likely get eaten, because, well, rats get eaten.  Yet evolution has geared them so that the rats that hang together and connect are the ones that survive.

What does this have to do with high-performance work environments?  If you want to have healthy, creative people, thinking about connecting with others, you have to boot everyone out of the Survival v-Meme.  Things like accessible day care, steady, calibrated salaries, good health care, and a meaningful, non-threatening performance review system that finds weaknesses in employees with the intent to improve that characteristic are overall likely to be more effective than ones that seek to find weakness to aid in a campaign of dismissal.

To the evolutionary manager, this all seems to be pro-forma.  Yet company after company has implemented Jack Welch-like strategies, where after every performance review, some bottom 10% of the employment cohort is whacked.  The hawk is constantly circling overhead, and the rats run for cover.  You might end up with a couple of wickedly fast rats with these kinds of strategies.  But no one’s going to talk to anyone else.  For those that want a detailed exposition on this, Vanity Fair’s expose’ on Steve Ballmer’s stack ranking system is stunning.  Highly recommended on how to kill creativity.  And just a little anecdote — before Jack Welch and his ‘whack the bottom’ every year strategy, I was of the engineering cohort (Class of ’82)  that wanted to work for GE.  It is absolutely not aspirational for the kids I teach now.

Daniel Pink makes this point very eloquently on a slightly higher v-Meme basis with the following video — well worth the watch.  Spoiler Alert — Daniel is very much a Communitarian, and so the punchline at the end isn’t very surprising — don’t do the carrot and stick thing with people, like you would with a donkey.  What he doesn’t quite understand is that with any empathetic connection — and you can have those with donkeys, too — don’t do the carrot and stick thing.  Unless they’re a teenager wanting a car.  THEN do the carrot-and-stick thing!

One thing I would say before moving on is that there are always people that you can’t reach, that are going to have to be fired.  Very Authoritarian v-Meme.  That’s life.  But you simply can’t manage your entire workforce like that.  Unless you want the rats to run for cover every time you walk in the door.

Takeaways:  Examine what you’re doing to your workforce, and if there’s anything that involves making people constantly fear for their survival, cut that shit out!  Possess enough of your own personal agency and responsibility to whack the bad actors.  Remember that an evolved manager has all the lower v-Memes to work with — but if you want creativity and innovation, you’ve got to cover your bases at the bottom as a matter of course.

Further reading:  The Wall Street Journal article I linked to above is a great one for understanding why we have far too many psychopaths — with the incumbent fallout– in the executive suite nowadays.  Here’s another one — ‘the near-perfect CEO’.  To be fair, Jack also preaches some enlightened stuff as far as employee development.  And if you look at GE’s primary businesses, they were hierarchies where refinement was more important than innovation.  So some of it makes sense.  But as the power business rolls over to more distributed modes, dark clouds are on the horizon — and GE could be dramatically reduced, just like other hierarchical powerhouses of the past, like IBM.  Live by (and optimize the performance of) the power structure, die by the power structure.  Because, well, you’re still a power structure.

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