In Yuval Noah Harari’s hit book Sapiens, he explains the far-reaching implications of our ability, as Homo Sapiens, to communicate about imaginary things:
Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins…Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights — and the money paid out in fees.
This shift, this ability to think in imaginary terms, is called the Cognitive Revolution (it was then followed by the Agricultural Revolution). This big step — imagination — is what took our species beyond tool-making and onto the top of the food chain; and in fact the world we construct with common fiction is perhaps stronger in some ways than the earth on which we walk:
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.
The conclusion that human “groupishness” and our ability to put the needs of a group ahead of our own in service of a shared imagined reality, is common among various branches of psychology. Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, references a series of studies on different stand-alone communes or cooperative communities, and found that those based on religious beliefs were far more successful than those without. The power of a controlling imagined reality is to allow people to work together.
Recently, our companies have grown in size and complexity. More recently still, digital communication has made it possible for people to feel they are part of a 200,000 person company, instead of a 200-person silo somewhere within a larger and somewhat anonymous organization.
To make matters worse (for humans), we have begun to shift between jobs and even careers at a very rapid pace. For my contemporaries, spending more than five years at a company that you didn’t create is odd and warrants some kind of explanation.
As a result, we are left with less natural trust within our companies and teams. We have begun to rely again on imagined realities instead of the more basic human tools of relationships and gossip. The motivational power of purpose for company employees is likely tied to this adaptive and psychological trick of creating trust and coordination within large groups of strangers through a shared story.