Business Transformation

Influence Through Instinct – Managing Nature’s Way

Albert Einstein may have said it best: “Look deep into Nature and you will understand everything better.”  

As a manager, have you ever wondered why employees gossip, backstab, miss work, fail to meet deadlines or sometimes bully their co-workers?  These types of issues within your office can affect not only morale, but efficiency and productivity as well, and must be controlled. Before we jump to the conclusion, however, that these actions are intentional and the employee committing them is less than honorable and in need of discipline, could Einstein’s admonition hint at some deeper understanding to even these common workplace problems? Could what we see on the surface of workplace behavior be just a symptom of a deeper issue; one that is driven by our employees’ instincts and what we might call their “Inner Animal” rather their intellect or conscious intent? And what if we, as managers, could tap into those instincts and influence behavior from that deepest instinctive level, instead of just the cognitive one? What if we could be more effective in solving or even preventing workplace problems by influencing staff at their instinctive level before disciplinary measures become necessary?

The fact that humans are classified as part of the Animal Kingdom can open an entire conversation regarding the management of humans in today’s workplace.  Of course, the evolutionary development of cognitive ability and other skills in modern humans is obvious, but what may not be as obvious are the original animal survival instincts that remain at our own core as well as that of our employees.  We may dismiss it as “just human nature”, as but these deeply engrained and hard-wired instincts can deeply affect how our employees think, how they react in various situations and even who they will “obey”.

To tap into this unique paradigm of people-management, we can familiarize ourselves with the following list of common human instincts and develop a new perspective on workplace behavior.  Understanding an issue more deeply keeps us from simply reacting to it. It allows us to formulate wiser and more thoughtful strategies that address problems at their core, and not just their surface symptoms.

The (Survival) Instincts that Still Drive Us and Our Employees

  • We choose easy over difficult and pleasure over discomfort
  • We look for order and are instinctively comforted by a clear hierarchy
  • We follow the strong but not the weak
  • We are most comfortable with others like ourselves
  • We distrust the unfamiliar
  • We acquire and guard our stuff (resources)
  • We can feel rivalry or jealously if our position or status are threatened
  • We like to keep our secrets and want to know everyone else’s
  • We imitate.
  • We build things.
  • We compete
  • We desire to be Great or Important. (We instinctively want to “Matter”.)

The Top Dog Archetype 

Animal Leaders in Nature did not attend business school.  They did not study advanced management theory, yet they lead seamlessly within their paradigm by understanding how to influence through instinct.  Their management style is subtle but powerful, with most of their actions aimed at influencing the behaviors of their subordinates before problems escalate, so that the need for direct confrontation is avoided.

The most effective animal leaders each display similar characteristics – a powerful archetype that cuts across species barriers:  Nature’s “Top Dog” Archetype.  It gives them not only the hierarchical advantage, but it activates the instinct in their subordinates to follow their strength, so that nagging or micromanagement is unnecessary.  Nature’s Top Dogs are:

  • Calm in the face of challenge
  • Embrace their leadership role
  • In control of their emotions; not prone to overreaction
  • Intentional and pragmatic as they maintain focus on the matter at hand
  • Clear about their expectations
  • Unafraid to follow-through with unwavering consistency
  • Firm
  • Fair
  • Friendly

It is not difficult to see the parallels to human leadership.  In fact, managers that do not display these archetypal Top Dog characteristics but take a different role – one of peer or friend—could be met with challenge. They may be bright and talented enough, but their staff may instinctively disrespect them if they do not exhibit the “Top Dog” archetype that their Inner Animal expects.  In fact, if staff sees them as “weak” because they are too emotional, unpredictable, unclear about expectations, or are afraid to follow though when rules are broken or expectations unmet, they may not only ignore their manager’s requests, but actively disobey.  It’s not personal, however; it’s instinct.

Managing Nature’s Way – the Basics

Nature’s management methods are simple and easy to adapt to any human workplace.  First, the manager needs to see and identify their management challenge and the parties involved.  Next, an analysis must be done of the deeper, less obvious instinctive motivators that could be at play.  Finally, a strategic action plan must be developed that focuses on activating those instincts in the person or department in question, that will influence more accleptable behaviors.  The following example will illustrate this 1-2-3 approach to Influence through Instinct.

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Understand the instincts involved
  3. Strategize an “Influence through Instinct” solution

Example:  Failure to Meet Deadlines or Complete Assigned Tasks

  1. Identify the Problem
    The office manager in your small business is in charge of writing your Facebook posts. He is supposed to do four posts per month, but he rarely does. You wonder whether he would get them done at all if you weren’t constantly reminding him.
  2. Understand the Instincts Involved:
    Meeting deadlines is always stressful. Missed deadlines are not necessarily the result of laziness. If deadlines are not routinely enforced or there is no consequence for missing them, missing deadlines becomes easier than meeting them.  We now can understand the possible instincts involved: Instinct #1: Hierarchy confusion with a leader that does not fit the Top Dog archetype.  Instinct  #2: Choosing Easy over Difficult
  3. Strategize an “Influence through Instinct” Solution
    One obvious strategy for the manager would be to look at their own management style.  Could it be improved upon by incorporating more elements of the Top Dog Archetype, especially being less lenient and following-through on missed deadlines, generally, while remaining fair and friendly.

There is another instinct that could be tapped, however, for even more success: Pleasure.    To illustrate, several years ago a company called Eastman Chemical was experiencing chronic failures to meet internal deadlines. (, 2003)  They decided to try a new tactic and reward their team for meeting a planned completion date by celebrating what they called Gravy Day, at which company executives would serve biscuits and gravy to the employees on the team. They tracked their progress. The deadline date was December 31. The project was completed by mid-November.

It is most likely that this tactic worked because of the employees’ instinct to Choose Pleasure.  Having their bosses serve them was fun!  It would also have fulfilled their instinctive desire to feel Important, and to Matter.  These particular instincts, within the framework of a clear Hierarchy, can be a powerful recipe for management success.


As managers, when we understand and acknowledge the instincts that subconsciously drive our own Inner Animal and that of our staff, we can not only appreciate their significance, but navigate around them to our advantage.  We can avoid running into the hidden obstacles that instincts can create beneath the surface.  With a deeper understanding of our employees as human beings, we can manage them not only with greater compassion, but with greater effectiveness.  Influencing through instinct can allow us to get more of what we want from others, “naturally”.

Written by Camilla Gray-Nelson. Have you read?
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Camilla Gray-Nelson
Camilla Gray-Nelson, Author, Cracking the Harmony Code: Nature’s Surprising Secrets for Getting Along While Getting Your Way (Double Dove Press; February 24, 2021) has been mentioned in the CEOWORLD magazine's Best Books List. She has spent her life living with and studying animals and their secrets to living together in harmony. With her uncommon perspective, she offers insights into our own Inner Animal and our ability to “influence through instinct,” instead of argument. Camilla Gray-Nelson is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. More information about Camilla can be found here.