Group selection and coaching for adaptability

For background:

There is a scientific theory in evolutionary biology called Multilevel Selection Theory, or Group Selection Theory.  The short version is that Darwin wrote about only one part of evolution – the evolutionary success of adaptive, fit individuals.  However, some groups survive even if the individuals in them are not the fittest in the total population.  This is what is known as Group Selection.  

What’s the bottom line that makes a group fit?  THe group has to compete.  For individuals to be collectively competitive, it all comes down to efficient communication, giving and accepting timely help, and trustworthiness.  Groups that have all these things can compete where individuals in the group may not survive.

So, for a logical segue, what does that mean for a coaching client?  Here’s what I’ve been noodling:

If individuals can become more competitively successful by being part of a fit group,

And if being part of a competitive group requires certain behaviours like communication, helping and trust,

And it is reasonable to assume that fit, competitive groups will select members based on their ability to display those behaviours,

Then it is reasonable for an individual to seek help to become great at those behaviours, to become desirable to the most successful groups.

What would those behaviours be?  Well, noticing what’s important to individuals and the group, asking for help from group members, helping when asked, contributing to the development of the group vision, taking action cooperatively to achieve the group’s vision when possible, learning what works and what doesn’t, committing to only those things that work and leaving the group if it no longer serves the individual – because it is certain that the individual will no longer serve the group.

These are very different from the behaviours we have come to associate with the successful individual – not needing help, getting it done alone, being wary, being competitive with other individuals, being “the best”.

So if the behaviours of individuals in fit groups are potentially more successful than the behaviours our culture has told us are the ones to pursue, it gets a bit confusing.  What should I do?  Should I be an individual achiever and go it alone?  Should I give up my competitive skills?

Like everything, there’s no black and white.  In some circumstances it is absolutely necessary to be able to go it alone.  However, it is probably smart to balance the “hero” our culture tells us to be with some other behaviours that give us a chance to join successful groups.

We need to be adaptable!


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