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."

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