The Alignment of Moral Compasses

The conventional view of evolution is that it orbits around the notion of self-interested competition. Life is a struggle and the strongest survive. This notion often justifies self-interested people.

Today scientists have a more complete and paradoxical view. Martin Novak, a professor of biology and mathematics at Harvard, published an article in the July, 2012, Scientific American. He points out that from single cell organisms to human beings, selflessness and cooperation are and have always been essential to evolutionary success.

At the human level, the cooperative capacity of a group is essential. Darwin, himself, noted that a tribe with many members willing to cooperate and sacrifice for the common good was more likely to win out over other tribes. Today researchers recognize that competition and cooperation can play out at many levels. In a company for example, people may compete to move up the hierarchy and yet the same people, in times of corporate crisis, may choose to sacrifice for the overall good of the company.

Competition and cooperation can ebb and flow like yin and yang. Novak writes: “Evolutionary simulations indicate that cooperation is intrinsically unstable; periods of prosperity inevitably give way to defective doom. And yet the altruistic spirit always seems to rebuild itself; or moral compasses somehow realign.”

A primary purpose of leadership is speeding the alignment of moral compasses. One thing that differentiates a leader from a manager is the ability to transform the disengaged mindset into the engaged mindset. Simulations reviewed by Novak, show that participants are most likely to engage in altruistic cooperation when they are convinced that there is a problem worthy of sacrifice. There are two ways to do this. The first is to have a visible crisis. The second is to continually discover, clarify and animate the highest purpose of the group and show people how what they do links to the purpose. It is difficult work and essential to positive organizing.


What does it mean to align the moral compasses of a group?

Of the people around me, how many are sacrificing for the common good?

How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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