The territorial imperative

Years ago I read The Territorial Imperative in which author Robert Ardrey explores his 'central notion that territory – not food and not sex – is our strongest biological drive'. Rather than spend time looking for the book on my bookshelves, I know it's there somewhere, I downloaded a sample chapter to my Kindle to remind myself of more of the detail.

Having done a quick revision of it I'm beginning to think it should be a 'must read' for anyone trying to introduce, or work with, the newer ways of thinking about office workplaces and working patterns. Often these newer ways fall under the heading of 'Smart Working' which as the new BSI Code of Practice on the topic states 'incorporates the benefits of increased flexibility and organizational agility by introducing … changes to working practices, working environments, processes and organisational culture'.

In the category of 'working environments', for the most part, Smart Working involves forms of 'hotdesking', desk sharing, unassigned desks, and collaborative spaces, leading to what the Smart Working Handbook describes in its maturity model as 'non-territorial working'. It's fascinating to see that 'non-territorial working' is the first step of maturity towards the fourth and final level of maturity described as 'smart flexibility'. So if we don't get past non-territorial working are we ever going to continue down the path of Smart Working?

Ardrey defines territory as 'an area of space, whether water, earth or air which an animal defends as an exclusive preserve'. He then goes on to wonder whether 'humans' are 'animals' in this definition and in a subsequent paragraph confirms that 'Man (I think these days he would include women) is as much a territorial animal as is a mockingbird singing in the clear California night'.

So you can see that my delve into 'The Territorial Imperative' was prompted by some work we're doing on (trying to) introduce Smart Working. In doing this I've observed, and not for the first time in this type of work, that getting to non-territoriality is a giant step and perhaps even an insurmountable.

This is because territoriality involves 'protection, a safety device, and a status marker'. In Smart Working settings I notice that it is the 'status marker' that is the biggest barrier to getting anywhere with Smart Working particularly in organisations where there are strong hierarchies with associated 'entitlements'.

We've all seen car parking spaces with the names of senior individuals attached to each one. There are similar things about 'my meeting room', 'my office, 'my desk' (if you are not senior enough to have an office), 'my chair' – complete with admonishments taped to the back of it not to alter any of the settings. I was once in an astonishing exchange (or was it perfectly ok?) where a senior person demanded us to go and fetch a tape measure so we could check that the lockers we were ordering would enable her to hang her full length coat in 'her' locker so that the bottom of it didn't get wrinkles.

In a previous organisation I worked in (in the US) I asked some researchers to come and investigate with us the issues we'd noticed around 'status markers'. I wanted to know if we could substitute 'territory' i.e. office, desk, or chair, etc. for alternate 'status markers'. You can read the findings in this article When the Bases of Social Hierarchy Collide: Power Without Status Drives Interpersonal Conflict .

In a nutshell the research team '[found that] employees who have power are especially reactive to changes in status. … establishing that power without status is a unique state that produces more interpersonal conflict and demeaning behaviour than any other combination of status and power.'

So what does this mean for introducing Smart Working in organisations where status is implied by amount of territory 'owned' (and where leaders are reluctant to give up 'their' territory)? Are there substitutions and/or organisation design possibilities for enabling people to feel they are keeping their 'status' when they lose their 'territory'?

Let me know.

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