Book Reviews

Executive Instinct : Managing the Human Animal in the Information Age
by Nigel Nicholson
Hardcover - 352 pages (November 7, 2000)
Crown Pub; ISBN: 0812931971

Editorial Reviews
Review by William  A.  Spriggs, Dec. 15, 2000

As far as I am aware, Executive Instinct is the first book utilizing the groundwork established in evolutionary psychology and is aimed squarely at chief executive officers of corporations. I consider this book an important development because it is these individuals, (mostly males) who run the giant engines we call commerce, and commerce is responsible for advancing the material goods and services that are spreading rapidly around the globe today, and hence, speeding the development of globalization. Globalization has its benefits, we are told, but the process also has its critics; street demonstrations by some extremist groups, protesting in their view, the spread of commercial exploitation of individuals and the environment in third world countries seem to be more numerous than ever. Champions of big business argue that these poor souls, and hence, these third world countries are now better off then they were before big business arrived; time will develop the truth, which I believe will combine both arguments. In any case, the business world needs a new lens in which to view itself and the world around it. Perhaps this book is where that new view begins.

Mr. Nicholson's goal is simple and noble:

"In this book, I want to turn this analytical spotlight [of EP] on what is happening in our workplaces. It can help us understand what makes the difference between the most impressive examples of leadership, organization and achievement and the most ineffective, unhealthy, and destructive...A true understanding of human nature -- what motivates people and shapes their thoughts and instruct us in how to manage one another to bring out the best in everyone." p. 13.


"There are a million and one ways to run a company badly, but a common set of principles underpins excellence. This amounts to a human vision of management that honors the essence of human nature." p. 34

Written in an informal, yet highly lucid manner, you will find this book solely business friendly. With a quick count, I found 42 subject lists reduced to bullet or diamond form where the author breaks down his theories into bite-sized bits of knowledge. Also, Nicholson cites names of companies and chief executive officers like we in the evolutionary community mention theories and their attending evolutionists.

The author gives us a short history of work by, describing, what he calls the four stages of work: the hunter-gatherer societies; the emergence of the agricultural era; the industrial revolution from 1820 to about 1900. Then he goes into detail concerning the fourth age; the information age and the emergence of the internet with its capacities of hidden surveillance. He then tells us of his uneasiness concerning the mapping of individual's DNA. I agree.

Through his years of observation and study, Mr. Nicholson has broken down the problems of big businesses into what he calls:


  1. Suppressed emotion and stress
  2. Disempowerment
  3. Low-trust politics
  4. Discrimination
  5. Ineffective teams
  6. Bad decisions
  7. Management by fear

I'll let you read his book to discover his: "TOWARD SEVEN SOLUTIONS: THE EP [EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY] WAY, p.63-66

To recall his introduction:

"As these themes suggest, evolutionary psychology can supply us with new lenses to view the world. By applying this vision to business and management, we can view afresh what motivates managers, leaders, and employees. We can see more clearly which methods of management and organization go against the grain of human nature. We can find new ways of working." p.12

If I have any complaints about this book is that the author did not speculate more on gender roles and how to best use both sexes in a business setting; he makes keen observations of these differences, but then finalizes with the same old overwhelming view that

"...the rules, practices, and structures of business organizations favor males and their aspirations." p. 92.  Or:

"...women leaders remain extremely scarce. Domination, competition, and patriarchy are biologically encoded as our model of authority. These values are integral to the promotion systems that operate in business and public life. Wherever we create an opportunity for a single leader of a hierarchy, nine times out of ten it will be men who strive for, attain, and hang on to the role." p.94

Perhaps, as each new crop of managerial teams emerge from the seeds planted in the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, they will come up work methods and environments that we would never imagine. But, I believe that the author holds that seed grain in his hand when he observes:

"Evolutionary psychology reminds us of the essence of human psychology and the primacy of human instincts and human relationships in working life. Almost every significant event and development in the business world, and the most of the problems too, originate in the motives and choices of individuals and groups...The best things that happen in organizations happen because of something good some person does for, to, or with someone else. The worst disasters, miseries, and acts of oppression occur for the opposite reason: people treating other people badly. p.250

Keep that seed of knowledge in mind when you focus on anything, and you will hit the bulls eye. It comes down to how we treat people.

As you read this book you must continually remind yourself that this is a professional executive dipping into the evolutionary perspective pool as opposed to an evolutionary psychologist musing about the executive environment. The evolutionary perspective is spreading, and this one of the forms that it will take. You are witnessing transformational history where all the humanities -- economics, mathematics, medicine, politics, and sociology in general will function and flow from this perspective. I, for one, am glad to have Mr. Nicholson aboard. Highly recommended for business executives and middle managers -- or anyone interested in human nature and how it works in the business environment.

Nigel Nicholson is a professor at the London Business School. Dr. Nicholson received his Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Wales.

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