Office "Jungle" Mirrors Primate Behavior

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 23, 2005
Kings of the corporate jungle survive by using conflict and cooperation
techniques honed by their primate relatives, a new book asserts.

The Ape in the Corner Office: Understanding the Workplace Beast in All of Us, by award-winning journalist Richard Conniff, examines corporate behavior through the eyes of a primatologist.

Conniff suggests that the ways in which humans manage conflict and cooperation are key to their successes or failures—just like primates.

He also explains that while aggression can be effective, nice guys certainly don't finish last.

Killer Apes or Cooperative Apes?

Primates and humans are essentially social creatures, Conniff posits.

"We have the idea that we are 'killer apes,' as the expression goes, but we are quintessentially cooperative apes," he told National Geographic News.

"Conflict and aggression are normal primate behaviors, and that's not a bad thing. But most people's perception of the animal world is that they think it's only [full of] conflict."

Conniff believes conflict plays an important but more limited social role in the wild than cooperation.

"Even chimps, who have a reputation for being brutal, only spend 5 percent of the day in antagonistic behaviors and 15 to 20 percent of the day grooming one another," he said.

But invariably it's aggression that gets attention. Human perceptions of office behavior might be skewed toward less frequent but dramatic events.

"We really pay attention to conflict in the office, because it can affect our survival in the job," Conniff noted. "But the rule is people being nice to each other, being polite to each other, opening doors for each other. It's crucial to having a successful workplace."

Grooming a Helpful Group

Franz de Waal, a leading primatologist at Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, notes that in the primate world, like the office, building networks is key.

"You can never reach a high position in the chimp world if you don't have friends who help you," he said.

The various ways in which primates build groups should be familiar to businesspeople. The animals do favors for one another, share resources, and sometimes employ a bit of cunning.

"In chimps a common strategy is to break up alliances that can be used against them," de Waal explained. "They see a main rival sitting with someone else and they try to break up [that meeting]. They use strategies that I'm sure most people perform without knowing that they are doing them."

"It makes chimps look awfully smart [to be] using similar strategies to people," he added. "But it also makes people look less smart than they think they are."

Does Bad Behavior Pay?

Despite cooperative efforts, neither the corporate jungle nor the real McCoy are free from aggressive alpha-type leaders. De Waal explains that while both primates and humans sometimes strive to reduce conflict, they also exhibit strong power drives.

"Chimpanzees will display behavior to show how strong they are—they'll bang trees—and people have that same tendency of intimidating others with their behavior," he said.

Conniff, the book author, agrees: "There are plenty of examples of bad bosses who get ahead by naked aggression. It can seem to work in the short term, but the long-term costs are enormous." Tough bosses win battles but tend to lose wars, he said.

For employees, the negative impacts of managers who bully workers to get ahead include high turnover, low morale, and even a physical toll evidenced by elevated stress levels, high blood pressure, and the death of some brain cells.

"If an abusive boss thinks that his employees look brain dead, there may be a reason," Conniff said.

Lone Wolves Lose Out

Also, the idea of a rugged individual, or lone wolf, is glamorous but hardly a template for success, the author asserts.

"The truth is we are completely dependent on other people emotionally as well as for our physical needs," he said. "We function as part of a group rather than as individuals. We always complain about the rat race. But the truth is that we not only need, but like, our fellow rats."

In the office environment groups form that have dynamics similar to those of primate communities, and lone animals generally cannot survive.

These groups fall into natural and effective hierarchies in which members are well aware of their roles.

The Natural Order

Conniff explains that when chimpanzees approach an alpha member, they appear to reduce their body size a bit. They seem to become as small as they can and even grovel at times.

"We [humans] like to think that we wouldn't do that sort of thing, but the truth is that we all do it," Conniff said. "It's just a little bit subtler. We tend to make ourselves a bit smaller, quieter, and less expansive.

"We do similar things with our vocal tones and facial expressions. Subordinates smile more while alphas smile less, because subordinates have to worry about pleasing people."

Emory's de Waal notes that most primate hierarchies determine the distribution of resources, most notably sex for males and food for females.

While the resources we covet may be different, Conniff suggests that the same drives are at work in the office.

"Troops of baboons are obsessed with rank and hierarchy, and that translates directly into the workplace," he said.

"Baboons are obsessed with who gets the best spot on the jackalberry tree. We're obsessed with who's got the best Blackberry, or the best office. The same concern with status is transferred to a different set of values."

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