Social Darwinism in the workplace

“Survival of the fittest.” This is the law that governs all life on earth. Species that do not have the ability to adapt to environmental changes eventually become extinct. Those who can adapt survive.

We have come to understand life through this lens by recognising naturally occurring hierarchies, such as the ‘food chain’, and indeed much of society appears to be organised around this model. Our political system is hierarchical, and our workplaces are hierarchical, for example. In these systems, conditions are created whereby those deemed to have the most skills and experience (i.e. ‘power’) are able to ascend and survive – we have the emergence of ‘alphas’ or ‘apex’ individuals being sustained at the expense of those with less power. Those who have the skills and experience with which to thrive under those conditions see no problem with that system – not only does it work for them, it is also a fundamental natural law, therefore unchangeable. The way neoliberal capitalism (and therefore many workplaces) operates is based on this premise – unrestricted competition leads to better, faster, outcomes.

This is why the workplace is competitive – to survive in this system, workplaces need to attract the ‘best talent’, those with the skills to get the job done as quickly and cheaply as possible. Gradually we find the type of people who survive in that system becomes more and more concentrated, more homogenous, more conformist, and less diverse, as their particular traits and characteristics are valued above those of others.  This is why we have such wealth inequality and lack of representation of certain groups at ‘the top’ – i.e. women, people with disabilities, LGBT+ groups, Black and Minority Ethnic groups, and so forth – that is not to say that these groups inherently have less skills – that’s the wrong question – but it is to say that those within ‘power’ perceive these groups to have less value to contribute in achieving the goals those in power set, within the context those in power are operating in – i.e. people in minority groups have skills and experience that are deemed to be less valuable in the workplace, or ‘irrelevant’, or even ‘detrimental’ (not to overlook the role misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and so forth, play in these systems), when it comes to achieving the organisational objectives.

The way power concentrates in this system is fascinating. Individuals within this system (even individuals whose role it is to challenge or mitigate this system) internalise a set of beliefs and assumptions, and recruit others after their own image, because any challenge to their idea of ‘what the goal is’, or ‘how the job should be done’, is effectively filtered out during the conform and concentrate process. For example, in the context of neurodiversity how often do we see mental health, or autism charities seeking to recruit people who are ‘confident’, ‘resilient’, ‘great communicators’, or ‘team players’ thus enforcing the very barriers they claim to be challenging? When challenged on this point, the default position is that those qualities are deemed essential to succeeding within that role, after-all why would you pay for someone who isn’t able to perform that task? To me this speaks of a lack in creativity of thought when it comes to people’s perceptions about what a job role is, how it is constructed, and how it should be executed – creativity which becomes in shorter and shorter supply the more the system reinforces conformity. It is easy to see why workplaces commonly evoke parallels to totalitarian states.

The good news is that there appear to be signs of a burgeoning awakening among organisational leaders – the recognition that ‘diverse’ teams tend to lead to better problem solving, and more innovation – but again, the current tendency is still to defer to ingrained notions about what the organisation is there to do, and how it is supposed to do it, and so concessions made in order to increase diversity are still limited in their scope. To be fair, given the wider economic (competitive) context that organisations operate in, they are limited in how much room they can make for those who don’t necessarily fit the ‘corporate ideal’ – they don’t have an unlimited supply of money with which to facilitate certain changes – this is why wider societal and economic change is essential if underrepresented groups are going to achieve the same sort of opportunities as those currently in power.

Another piece of good news is the slow realisation that structures within which power becomes concentrated do not operate in a vacuum – concentration of power has a tendency toward instability (think of every war, revolution, or financial crash). The more power is concentrated, the more people are excluded, the less the power is able to sustain itself within the wider environment, and it collapses. Hierarchies exist within a wider framework, an ecosystem, and their ability to survive is contingent on the ecosystem’s ability to sustain them. Facing the realities of a system that is showing signs of decay (i.e. climate change, mass wealth inequality, and political instability), organisations are waking up to the need to change the way they operate, and re-evaluate the role they play in society.

As people ‘on the spectrum’, it is our role, I would argue, to help organisations along this journey – by continuing to fight for the rights of people with disabilities, and recognising that the system that excludes people with disabilities is the same system that also excludes women, people of colour, people of diverse gender identities, people of different sexualities and faiths – their fight is our fight, and we need to be their allies. As the current system continues to falter, we need to be armed with ways of responding to ensure that the next system is fit for, well, everyone.

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