If baboons can do it, so can we


I’m going to hazard a guess that, like me, you never imagined we might have something to learn from baboons about culture change. Nevertheless, I want to discuss some interesting research conducted by Dr. Robert Sapolsky on the Keekerok troop of baboons. As this YouTube video explains, normal baboon society is highly stratified, with high levels of male aggression. The Keekerok troop of baboons was no exception, that is until the troop had the seemingly unfortunate experience of catching tuberculosis from human refuse. Every alpha male died, leaving twice as many females and the “nice guy” males behind – those who were not aggressive toward females and who were socially affiliative. The behavior of the tribe changed dramatically – members were nicer to females, there were lower levels of aggression and higher levels of social affiliation. Interestingly, troop members also showed lowered levels of stress and stress-related health issues after the change. And the change persisted – when new adolescents joined the troop, it took them about six months to adapt to the new culture, which has been maintained now twenty years later.

The baboons were being studied because they represent a useful analog to human behavior and physiology. While the researchers had not set out to study culture change, that is what immediately jumped out at me after watching this clip. The “culture” of the troop evolved based on the preferences and behaviors demonstrated by troop leaders and a critical mass of members (affiliation vs. aggression), a change which was maintained as new members were taught the behaviors that were considered acceptable. This confirms to me that through strong and thoughtful leadership, careful selection, and appropriate behavioral reinforcement, human culture can indeed be purposefully managed to change organizational outcomes. If this troop was able to, in one generation, transform what scientists had believed was an innately driven social system, I don’t think we have much excuse for failing to change culture for the betterment of an organization.

Many of the topics we have posted about lately (e.g., burnout, power and empathy, employee engagement, work-life balance) depend mightily on a carefully cultivated culture. As we have talked about each, the business case in terms of dollars lost due to failure to handle them appropriately has seemed clear. The stepping stone between understanding and execution is strong leadership driving the evolution of a culture that values and supports these drivers of performance.

And if the baboons can do it, so can we.