Books: How animal instincts set the tone at work

If you think evolution has distanced us from our primate cousins, this book will surprise you, reports Stefan Stern.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Ape in the Corner Office: Understanding the workplace beast in all
of us
Richard Conniff
Marshall Cavendish

I have never bitten a colleague in the scrotum, nor wandered around the office with my bare monkey ass on display. Had I done so, who knows? I might be director-general of the BBC by now.

This may not be the right conclusion to draw from Richard Conniff's entertaining book, launched in the US three years ago and now published in the UK.

Science writer Conniff has spent years studying wildlife in its natural environment. In the tradition of the British zoologist Desmond Morris - of The Naked Ape fame - Conniff has put his observational skills to work at work. He considers hierarchies, leadership styles, communication and the rest in the context of our primate origins. We are apes, after all. 'Workplace behaviours that we take to be no more than the whim of the moment often turn out, on closer examination, to be rooted millions of years deep in our biology,' he writes. 'Understanding these roots can be a revelation.'

Perhaps you find this sort of talk absurd. We have evolved, haven't we? The ape stood and became human. Rational economic humanity is now in control. And it is a tough, logical world that we have built for ourselves. 'I don't do feelings,' Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy once declared. 'I'll leave them to Barry Manilow.'

But Conniff takes a different view: we are emotional animals, and even if business does seem like a Darwinian fight for survival, we need to develop a better zoological understanding of ourselves if we want to prosper.

For all the talk of 'alpha male' apes constantly seeking confrontation, researchers have observed a deal of 'reciprocal altruism' in ape communities. All that grooming for bugs and fleas, for example, is how primates do their social networking. Organisational culture and esprit de corps are important, and speak to a deep human need. 'Like most monkeys and apes, we are intensely social animals,' says Conniff.

Neurologists have started measuring the biochemical reactions in the brain that suggest how peace rather than war can break out if human interactions are managed carefully. Two key hormones are oxytocin and vasopressin.

Oxytocin, Conniff reports, lowers the heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, 'inducing calmness and greater readiness for affection'. Vasopressin, on the other hand, 'seems to be connected with alertness and the urge to protect and care for the family'.

Conniff cites Jimmy Carter's account of his Camp David talks in 1978, with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. The Egypt-Israel talks were on the brink of collapse when President Carter took commemorative photographs of the event to the Israeli leader. Each set had the names of his grand-children written on them. Begin softened and told happy tales about them and his fears for their future. The deal was back on. 'The important point for now,' says Conniff, 'is that our biology gears us up for co-operation at least as much as for conflict. Our default mode as social animals is not selfishness, but strategic altruism.'

Humans are 99% genetically identical to chimpanzees. And chimps, it seems, display all kinds of behaviour patterns that are familiar from office life. They scheme and plot, and form temporary coalitions. They exaggerate their reactions to provoke a response. Sometimes they fight each other. They are uneasy at unresolved conflict, preferring to thrash things out before the community coalesces again.

We humans pride ourselves on our civilisation, and the extent to which we have overcome our animal instincts. But we delude ourselves. We are animals too, and can learn a lot by studying our not-so-distant cousins. 'In the natural world,' Conniff writes, 'most social animals spend their lives in one group and quickly figure out who everybody else is and where they fit in the picture.'

So what is our fragmented, here-today, gone-tomorrow world doing to us all? Is it any wonder if some of us go mad, like disorientated captive animals at the zoo? Maybe it's time to take another look at the hairy and not-so-hairy colleagues who surround you. After reading Conniff's provocative analysis, you'll never look at them in quite the same way again.

Stefan Stern is a contributing editor of MT and management columnist for the Financial Times.

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