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We’re social animals, it’s time bosses learned how to protect their flock

Published 23 June 2021 in Magazine • 13 min read

Support for our mental wellbeing tends to focus on the individual, but that approach goes against our true nature and has led to an increase in loneliness and isolation, and a fall in productivity. Zoe Finch Totten explains why a different approach is needed. 

Adisabled goose lives in the pond behind my house. Geese, are instinctively primed to live in flocks. Because she cannot fly, this goose was left behind by her parents and six siblings last autumn when she was five months old. Observing how she has had to adapt to survive, not only from predators but as a goose without other geese as role models, is a constant reminder of why we humans are struggling right now: a singular life is an anxious life. 

This goose has worked hard to befriend other creatures living nearby: from mallard ducks to wild turkeys to me, she greets us all with exuberant honks and rushes to meet us because she needs us to help her learn about her world. So powerful is her need for conditioning, she has adopted some behaviors of these other species. And when they or I am nearby, she often sleeps as she can safely let down her guard. 

Whether we realize it or not, we have created a world and organizational cultures in which every one of us is too much the lonely goose. By elevating our individuality, we are offloading and outsourcing fundamental human needs that cannot be met solely by individuals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our approach to mental wellbeing. Individuals can find a range of support for their wellbeing, but most of the advice is about what they can do for themselves.  

But what about leadership, those who have responsibility for others and the authority to determine organizational mission, goals, strategies, and the policies and practices that are meant to turn values and vision into a new reality? The odds are that if you are such a person, you’re thinking about programs that your HR department could offer. These can be valuable but a much greater impact could be had by looking through a wider lens.  

Most organizational strategies no longer take into account that humans are a social species rather than a conglomeration of individuals. We once got much of our subliminal and conscious conditioning about how to be human from our extended families and communities. But over the past several decades, the only places we regularly congregate in three dimensions are work or school (and for some houses of worship or social clubs). Given that employed people spend more time at work than anywhere else, and more time with colleagues and managers than with anyone else, organizations are now a primary socializing force, making one of the most influential and pervasive changes in our lives over the past 30 years yours to address. You, as organizational leaders, are the elders of today’s world. 

We depend on our groups to anchor us as individuals. Our groups signal what is valuable, dangerous or safe, health-supporting or health-depleting. They show us what is significant rather than a passing interference, and how to separate the truth from propaganda. Groups help us to create meaning and to define ourselves. Wellbeing and mental health are far more of a social function than a set of solo acts. It’s the conditioning by groups that creates the patterns by which most individuals live.

Wellbeing and mental health programs tick and tie with management development programs which tick and tie with the creation of metrics for efficiency, productivity, and engagement, most of which reflect the modern illusion that individuals rather than groups have the greater agency to achieve impact. The unintended consequence of this is the intensification of individual feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and inadequacy, creating a cost borne not only by individuals but also by organizations and societies. Centralizing the value of the individual has not just undermined our human functionality and the long-term success of organizations, it has also exacerbated racism and sexism by socializing our differences. 

Modern office life has made many of us sad swans and lonely geese.
And we ate together, like these workers at the Pirelli factory in the 1950s...
Now we all too often are left to work at home alone

The greatest opportunities for inclusivity of diverse peoples – which will serve to strengthen all manner of individual and organizational agility and achievement – rest upon the realization that we are all part of the same species. 

Even before the pandemic, many people felt lonely. In a study commissioned by the health insurer Cigna in 2019, 10,000 American adult workers were surveyed using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and more than half of those reported feeling left out, poorly understood and lonely. This was true across generations, with those relying most heavily on social media feeling more isolated (we should not assume causality; their use of social media may be a response to feeling lonely rather than a cause of loneliness), and there is ample evidence that loneliness undermines physical health and decreases productivity. 

Lonely workers are twice as likely to miss work due to illness and five times as likely due to stress. 

Doug Nemecek, Chief Medical Officer for behavioral health at Cigna, told NPR, the American broadcaster, “In-person connections are what really matters. Sharing that time to have a meaningful interaction and a meaningful conversation, to share our lives with others, is important to help us mitigate and minimize loneliness.” Cigna estimated that loneliness could cost the US economy more than $406 billion a year. 

This is true of your future employees as well: the American College Health Association 2018 National College Health Assessment found that 63% of US college students reported overwhelming anxiety in the previous year, which negatively impacted academic performance. In 2020, a third of undergraduate, graduate and professional school students were found to have depression or anxiety or both based on a screening survey by the higher education consortium Student Experience in Research University: 35% were positive for major depressive disorder and 39% for generalized anxiety disorder. 

If you’re in a position of authority, you have a much greater ability to impact your employees’ wellbeing than you may realize. And good business depends more than ever on your doing so. Maria Montessori, the revolutionary physician-turned-educator, wrote: “The teacher’s first duty is to watch over the environment, and this takes precedence over all the rest. Its influence is indirect, but unless it is well done there will be no effective and permanent results of any kind; physical, intellectual or spiritual.” 

Substitute the word teacher for leader, understand that environment encompasses both the hard and softscapes of experience, and you can consider your new role in the lives of those who work in your organization. 

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that because these are human needs, this is an HR gig. It’s not. Human Resources has a partnering role, but traditional HR has served to ensure compliance with employment law and the attraction of talent through benefits packages rather than as the lead designer and developer of organizational culture. 

While the pandemic has interrupted the three-dimensionality of work, school and clubs, and many organizations will utilize a hybrid model of site-based and remote gathering once the pandemic has abated, the impact of social conditioning will remain: the conditioning influence of those with whom we have a history of three-dimensional accountability and from whom we get support continues even when we engage virtually. 

The converse, however, is not nearly as true. As JPMorgan and Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon wrote in his annual letter to shareholders this year: “Performing jobs remotely is more successful when people know one another and already have a large body of existing work to do. It does not work as well when people don’t know one another .”  

The opportunities to support wellbeing, mental health, and functionality are endless, essential and urgent. 


Where could you start?  

Despite the broad acceptance that there are social determinants of health, most organizational cultures are unhealthy for body, mind and spirit. The challenge is to design and re-design by intention so that your cultural conditioning supports healthier norms.  

Be specific. Your efforts should apply to every stated value, and to every policy, practice, and program you offer; the day-in and day-out test of your success will be the degree to which normative behaviors reflect these efforts. 

Be persistent. This is dynamic work: because your workforce demographics and psychographics will continue to shift, and market and climate changes will continue to occur, you’ll need to actively seek new information and awareness with which to respond to these changes, from your own teams and from peers in other organizations and industries. 

Use eating occasions to serve up resilience 

Consider under what circumstances your employees eat during the workday, regardless of whether they are working onsite or remotely, and how this occurs. All social species use eating occasions to engage, teach, and reinforce cultural norms through patterning, and positive conditioning. Opportunities abound if you choose to make use of them. Linda Hogan, award-winning poet, playwright, academic, environmentalist, and Writer in Residence for the Chickasaw Nation, writes of intentionally designed human interaction: “The intention of a ceremony is to put a person back together by restructuring the human mind…We make whole our broken-off pieces of self and world…The ceremony is a point of return. It takes us toward the place of balance, our place in the community of all things. It is an event that sets us back upright.” 

The pandemic has required us to use our resiliency and many organizations have added “resilience” to their goals and metrics. Resilience is understood as an adaptation to adversity, tragedy, and trauma. None of us would intentionally design such difficulty into organizational learning, but there is great value in intentionally designing in patterns that allow us to contend with the more ordinary changes we face in daily life – in our bodies, our feelings, our interactions with others, the weather – by conditioning us to recover our equilibrium. The more we can do so, the more resilient we are when adversity arises. Organizational culture can effectively use eating occasions as low-barrier opportunities to create patterns that set us “back upright”. In the midst of our harried and fragmented lives, in which we have to change our tempo and our focus many times in a single day, eating with others can serve as a recurring recalibration. 

Women are the most instinctively engaged in social conditioning
Julius Schnoor is one of many artists to depict the nurturing role of mothers

ONE WAY: Technology companies are well-known for making extravagant food extravagantly available, as in, all day long. It’s not a surprise that they then face the challenge of having an employee population that overeats and suffers the consequences. Providing the food is easy, if you have the money, and it’s meant to offset the grueling hours and productivity metrics expected; providing an environment and culture that conditions more fully functional humans is where the work really lies. 

AN ADDITIONAL WAY: One organization with which I work used pre-paid debit cards to invite staff to take lunch together as part of a multi-faceted approach to changing their culture to one in which their employees would experience greater engagement and support. Staff at different levels and in different roles were given these cards and asked to invite people to lunch, both people they knew and worked with and others more tangential to their roles. The goal was to initiate a pattern that could be sustained not by the free lunches but by the transformative experience of the group. 

Enlist peer groups to save time It is shocking to most of us when, in the context of our relationships with close family and friends, we experience a disconnect from shared values and behaviors. And yet for many employees, these disconnects occur daily at work, undermining trust and accountability and stimulating stress and cynicism. They also cost incalculable time – time to offload the emotionality of being destabilized, time to recalibrate and time away from getting work done. Rarely is time for relationship management built into the workday. The assumption is that relationships between managers and reports and between staff members will exist in a steady functional state so long as the organization has clearly stated values, standards and performance metrics. Even service businesses, which in order to succeed must take great care in client relationship management, routinely and blindly ignore the equivalent and even greater need to manage the relationships between their own people. 

Blind assumptions are more potent than those we knowingly make, and this one can crush work-life “balance” and wellbeing: decisions that could be made in respectful but honest ways in meetings are instead made in slow and sloppy ways in real and virtual hallways, in ones and twos rather than among all stakeholders because the relationships are so fragile. 

ONE WAY: All organizations with which I’ve worked aim to increase trust and accountability and improve management capabilities by using outsourced learning and development courses, leadership development programs, and executive coaches. Like parenting books, the advice from these is mostly reasonable and right but, also like parenting books, it turns out to be aspirational, so unhooked is the guidance from the dynamism of reality. The expectation is that if we have the information, we’ll act accordingly and nothing more is needed – or, if more effort is required to solve the problem, the effort is directed at individuals rather than relationships. 

I worked with one company which attempted to approach employee wellbeing by designing an internal app with a range of smiley and frowny faces for employees to use daily as a prompt to check in with each other. Yet there was no awareness that any meaningful check-in requires time and presence of mind and organizational strategies and systems to address the challenges behind the frowny faces.  

A BETTER WAY: Instead, structure peer groups throughout the organization that can do the experiential (rather than solely intellectual) learning and conditioning together. Invite them to work together to study every aspect of the organization against its stated standards and values, to rewrite job descriptions to reflect the true (and collective) need for relationship management, and to selectively become trusted facilitators at meetings whose knowledge of the organization can allow them to effectively support honest and efficient decision-making. 

There is no other way to get to accountability and trust that stick and stay stuck than through peer effort. Why? Because culture “is another inheritance mechanism, like genes”, Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, who studies culture in whales, said. “It’s another way that information can flow through a population.”  

But culture has distinct advantages over DNA when it comes to the pace and direction of information trafficking. Whereas genetic information can only move vertically, from parent to offspring, cultural information can flow vertically and horizontally: old to young, young to old, peer to peer, no bloodlines required.” Rebalance instinct to ensure impact Modern cultures and economies reflect a dominance rather than a nurturance model.  

For social species, it is women and mothers who are most instinctively engaged in social conditioning, and yet they are few and far between in C-suites. The philosopher Ken Wilber introduces his book A Brief History of Everything with a discussion about the impact of distinctive hormonal instincts between men and women regardless of culture or gender identity. Of male hormones, he writes, “…it appears that testosterone basically has two, and only two, major drives: f— it or kill it. And of female hormones and in particular, oxytocin: “the emotions are not f— it or kill it, but continuously relate to it, carefully, diffusely, concernfully, tactiley.” In his view, the evolutionary imperative is to transcend Julius Schnoor is one of many artists to depict the nurturing role of mothers these hormonal impulses by bringing into balance the “hyper-autonomy for men and hyper-relationship for women.”  

Persistent imbalance of any kind is problematic and because almost all systems and almost all technological development (and the funding behind it) reflect the instinctive dominance framework of men far more than they do the instinctive nurturance framework of women, the impacts of a dominance model are pervasive. This is the primary reason we have created a world and so many organizational cultures in which each of us is too much the lonely goose. 

ONE WAY: Attending to the numbers of women in the organization and in what roles at what levels is a powerful start. 

A RICHER WAY: Given that modern human cultures (and economies) the world over reflect a dominance model (male subjugates female, human subjugates nature), it is not enough to promote women as the rules of the “game” require that they work within this model. So how can you make it possible for women to use their instinctive nurturance to contribute to success and better balance systems and outcomes? Recruit more women into junior and mid-management roles. This will help eradicate invisible biases because, as Caroline Criado Perez says of her work on gender bias, “a lot of the male bias we come across shows they just forgot to factor women in because it was a male-biased team and they just sort of forgot we exist. It happens all the time by accident. And then there is simply just not knowing what women’s needs are.” 

This is why time for relationship management is rarely accounted for in considering workforce improvement efforts and metrics for impact. In order to create positive conditioning within your organization, you will need to solicit what has been subordinated for so long: the instinct for nurturant and relational systems that by their very nature include group-based experiential learning. Both genders and all gender identities apply here. Which brings us back to the use of peer groups: the only way to get at blind assumptions and invisible biases is by intentional, repetitive collective acknowledgment and effort. It’s easier to see what we can’t yet see if we are looking and listening together in environments tailored to radically promote inclusivity, protect psychological safety, and support innovative reframing. Use rigorously inclusive 360˚ performance reviews and staff surveys to adjust your strategies and policies based on what you learn (and keep learning).  

When the “I” in leadership acts with the knowledge that we are a social species rather than a conglomeration of individuals existing in individual vacuums of personal agency, the impacts are positive and lasting for individuals, organizations, and by ripple effect, all of us. 


zoe finch totte workforce strategy

Zoe Finch Totten

Executive consultant, entrepreneur, and behavior and organizational culture change expert

Zoe Finch Totten is an executive consultant, entrepreneur, and behavior and organizational culture change expert. Daughter of a cultural anthropologist, she trained at Yale as a nurse-midwife, later founded The Full Yield, Inc, and is an Ashoka Fellow. She works with both multinational and startup companies looking to address human needs more effectively.


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