Not long ago, I came across a review of a book that puts a contemporary spin on the age-old concept of “survival of the fittest.”
The book’s authors, cognitive scientists at Duke University, contend that the most widely accepted meaning may not be what Charles Darwin, the phrase’s commonly accepted originator, meant at all.
Instead, they suggest in “Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity” that the enduring social strengths of friendliness, cooperation and kindness ultimately will win the day.
Wait a minute.
What about the power of using brute force, punishment and intimidation? Isn’t that what survival of the fittest means, especially when applied to today’s harsh COVID-19 economic reality?
For context, the authors go to the dogs — and wolves.
“Dogs are the extremely friendly descendants of wolves,” they write. “They were attracted to humans and became friendly to humans, and changed their behavior, appearance and developmental makeup” through centuries of species evolution.
Wolves, not so much.
They were left in the wild to fend for themselves.
“Most people think of survival of the fittest as strong alpha males who deserve to win,” the authors conclude. “That’s not what Darwin suggested or what has been demonstrated. The most successful strategy in life is friendliness and cooperation, and we see it again and again.”
Moving to the human workplace, where do we fit among Darwin’s fittest?
First, let’s consider the optimum balance — mean vs. nice — as it applies to wherever you’re working these days, whether that’s the office, den, kitchen table or beach lounger.
There are all kinds of leaders and co-workers in all kinds of business settings who bring their own personalities to the workplace. Some are more effective than others. They may be louder and more demanding, or calmer and easier to please.
Some bosses and co-workers are warm and fuzzy, which makes life easier for them and usually for you. Others are flat-out jerks, whose seeming intent is to make life miserable for everyone, no matter what the issue.
Some speak softly and carry no sticks. Others speak softly — or loudly — and wield a big stick. They do things their way, and you’d best be shrewd enough to figure that out as soon as possible.
If you’re lucky, some might bring forth a smile and a sense of humor about themselves, while others scowl their way through life, perpetually angry and ticked off, quick to blame and shame.
Still others don’t do or say much, so you never know whether they’re Jekyll or Hyde that day, and you rarely know where they — or you — stand.
Now think about the leaders and people with whom you work that you truly respect and admire. Think of those who make your life more productive, enjoyable and even inspiring. Think about those who make you eager to go to work each day.
I seriously doubt you’re thinking about barking, snarling alpha dogs.
I’m a big believer that life’s too short to work around people who make your life miserable.
I also believe that life is too short to spend doing a stressful or boring job, one that doesn’t bring you some inner sense of fulfillment.
Yet, given today’s uncertain economic climate, having a regular paycheck is more than a blessing, it’s a necessity.
Believe me, I get that, and I don’t begrudge anyone who must, for now, suffer a bad work environment just to make ends meet.
But wouldn’t we all be better off if we tried to be kinder to each other? And wouldn’t “survival of the friendliest” be a better way to go through life than dog eat dog?
If you find yourself in an alpha dog environment, I’d encourage you to start doing something about it.
Don’t quit your current job without having a better option. But do start looking. A friendlier and kinder workplace makes all our lives so much more pleasant.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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