Reputation Management and Human Evolution: what’s the link?

When I decided to complete a Master’s in Business after my undergraduate degree in Anthropology, many people said that this seemed to be a step in a very different direction. I will admit that at the start of my course I saw the business world as a long way away from the study of culture, genetics and evolution. I have, however, learned that evolutionary theory can help to shed light on many aspects of business today. Reputation is one such aspect.

A close resemblance exists between the course of an organisation’s success or failure and the story of human evolution.  Similar to our ancestors, and indeed the ancestors of all living species, organisations must adapt to changing environments and secure valuable resources in order to remain competitive and, ultimately, survive. The nature of the challenges may differ – our evolutionary forebears fought to attain food and mates amidst intense climate fluctuation while contemporary organisations battle for customers, investors and partnerships in the context of global social, political and environmental change – but the general principles remain the same. Those that do not remain ‘fit’ within their distinct competitive landscapes risk finding themselves vulnerable.

This anthropological perspective can help us to understand why reputation, and reputation management, is so indispensable to organisations. Reputation was arguably a key mechanism for building ‘fitness’ within our ancestor populations. On the one hand this premise means that modern humans have likely evolved to be predisposed to seek reputation status for themselves and to look for it in those they interact with. Organisations should therefore be aware that stakeholder perceptions and behaviour towards them are, in part, guided by reputation.

In a broader sense, the idea of reputation being an evolutionary mechanism of fitness also provides modern organisations with a useful analogy. In the same way that reputation helped our ancestors access resources that increased their chances of survival, so too can reputation help modern day organisations navigate within their environments.

I’d like to reflect on a few examples of the role of reputation within hunter-gatherer societies. Seeing as we have spent 95% of our time as a species as hunter-gatherers, modern hunter-gatherer populations can provide a snapshot into our evolutionary past. It is arguable that reputation behaviours that were sustained and developed in these populations are still with us today. Within many hunter-gatherer societies, one’s reputation as a cooperative and beneficial group member drives trust and often generates greater access to vital resources, whether this is food or partners.

For example, Martu women hunt sand lizards in the Western Desert of Australia. While the goal is to distribute the meat evenly among all present, the best hunters normally end up with the least. Whilst this seems counter intuitive, those who develop a reputation for sharing the most reap rewards in the form of greater access to better hunting partners. Similarly, among the Bayaka in the Western Congo Basin, individuals who form a larger number of cooperative relationships with others based on reputation have better access to mates and receive more food during food sharing.

Reputation can also act as an insurance mechanism during times of need. Among the Ache foragers of Paraguay, those who maintain a reputation for sharing their food with others are able to receive food when they are unable to forage, for example due to shortage or illness.

Reputation goes beyond the individual and can help explain the fitness of wider groups. When the individuals of a group possess a strong reputation, they may be more likely to be trusted and gain the benefits that stem from interaction with other groups, for example food sharing, partnership in hunting and conflict and the development of trade networks. Indeed, it is thought that the ability of humans to develop food trade networks, built on reputation and trust, may have been one factor that allowed them to out-compete the neighbouring Neanderthals.

So what then is the lesson for organisations? Not only are humans predisposed to care about their own reputations, they also assess the reputations of others in order to decide who to interact, partner and share resources with. This means that organisations, as entities that are both formed and sustained by individuals, must effectively manage their reputations in order to maintain relationships with their stakeholders and gain access to key resources.

Ultimately, the ‘fitness’ of an organisation is, at least in part, defined by its reputation. In the same way that hunter gatherers were, and are, unable to dictate the environments in which they exist, for example food availability, modern organisations cannot always control their own external environments. Maintaining a good reputation, however, helps to ensure fitness as the resource benefits it creates act as a buffer to mitigate vulnerability to environmental threats.

Organisations today may not rely on sharing out sand lizards to win partnerships or stakeholder loyalty but the underlying idea remains the same: reputation management is critically important for survival.

I find that on this topic, as with many others, anthropology and business are stepping in the same direction.

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