Column by Dr YRK Reddy in HRD Newsletter


Chameleon is a fascinating reptile with an unusual genetic endowment. It has the ability to change its colours by a process of pigmentation triggered by its purpose or need. If it perceives a threat it can easily turn itself green, not for accommodating jealousy, but for merging into the surrounding greenery. If it is on a rock it can change its hue and colour as its surface. If it is in a mating mood, it dresses up in bright red, preening like a peacock. All this is possible due to three principal factors: its sensory abilities for perceiving the need for colour change and the needed response; the actual hue, colours and terrain around it and most importantly, its ability to trigger a biological process that it has been endowed with.

A chameleon has special cells with pigment (chromatophores) in them. The top layer of chromatophores has red or yellow pigment while the lower layers have blue or white pigment. When a chameleon senses the need (due to changes in perception of danger, light, temperature or mood) its brain sends a message to the cells telling them to grow bigger or to shrink. In the process, the cell pigments mix and the chameleon’s colour changes.

In the corporate world, candidates facing an interview cannot change their colours literally as human beings are physically challenged in this respect. However, they can use a combination of words, body language, and intonations to tailor-make their behavioural patterns to match the expectations surrounding them. The entire idea of coaching for interviews is exactly that. But not all candidates can fake well – some are better endowed while others are straight jacketed despite any amount of coaching. Some get caught at it.

To an extent, the process of assessment centres is expected to see through such moves by the candidates and get “under the skin” to peep into their true competencies. Competency mapping and assessment do not bother much about the extent to which an individual is genetically endowed with competencies or has acquired them. This is not unusual, as most of the HR managers, behavioural scientists and social scientists have been conditioned to believing that the “nature vs. nurture” has been settled in favour of the latter. Indeed, it was considered fascist to believe in the dominance of heredity or genetic endowment.

Darwinism had attracted the support of demagogues and psychopaths. A liberal disposition ably supported by the strong reaction to racism and discrimination demanded that we reject Darwinism and believe in the “socialization process” and the ability of people to acquire intelligence, talent, and competence. (Even Tolstoy had written to Mahatma Gandhi as to why Darwinism needs to be repudiated to let “peace and love” triumph over “pride and violence”). Thus, the syllabi of HR courses have largely ended in the assertion of the nurture argument with the influence of behaviourists such as Watson who has been quoted to read:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-informed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

Amidst this seeming settlement or stalemate, a new wave of argument has arisen lately that should interest Human Resource Managers and make them revisit their impressions on personality and its development. Matt Ridley has contributed significantly to this new wave of public interest that believes the relationship between genes and environment to be a very complex one (read his latest book titled: Nature Via Nurture, 2003, Fourth Estate, London). He tells us of its dynamism as well, while most managers have been trained to think of the debate as a passé that had a simple binary choice – nature or nurture.

Experiments and studies are tending to prove that genes themselves are not static over the generations. They absorb from the environment and change. They also are structured in such a way that some genes are turned on and some turned off - like a series of randomly blinking lights. This function is carried out by tiny proteins in the DNA called the promoters which trigger the switches. How do they decide when and what to switch and which way? That indeed is the cause of how other genes are getting triggered and the environmental cues. The promoters that enable particular genes to be turned on or off varies from individual to individual despite the commonality of the genetic structure.

Further complications of the dynamic relationship are evident from the fact that commonality or differences in behaviours are accounted for more by the environment and less by genes in certain types of population. For instance, it is observed that improved environment can make a dramatic change in the IQ/competence level of very poor people whereas it may make little difference when one moves from the middle income to a very high income environment (there is a message for economic policy makers here to raise social security and burden the rich more).

Similarly, it appears likely that the environment dominates the behaviour patterns at a younger age and the genetic factors appear to dominate the behavioural patterns as people advance in age. (Is this why learnability slows down as one progresses in age?)

Matt Ridley has also brought into the open, the implications of more recent findings in the field of genomics. In some ways, it was probably triggered by a seemingly surprising discovery that the number of genes in the homeo sapiens is not millions but just 35,000. Another shock was the finding that 99 percent of the genes are common between the Chimpanzee and a human being. Matt Ridley`s argument is that this should not be shocking. For, it is not the presence of genes that matter but their sequencing, the dynamics of the promoter and the way they are switched on and off that make critical differences in the make up of human beings and also the difference amongst them.

Getting back to the Chameleon, if it is endowed with a weak sensory system, it can misread the threats and the surroundings, giving itself a wrong colour at a wrong time. In the case of candidates too, despite their ability to conform to the expectations of the interview panel or assessors, they may indeed be prisoners of their own genetic dynamism that will shape their conduct in actual life – and even this may change over the years. It is likely that people scoring similar patterns in the behavioural instruments are actually not similar in their evident behaviour in organizations on a range of environmental conditions and over a period of time. This indeed will be a challenge to validation of the recruitment process and the instruments. Will the future give us special instruments that will also reckon the genetic dynamism in the candidates? Ah-ha that is new business in the making.

October, 2003 Issue

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