Chapter 1: YES, IT IS A GODDAMN JUNGLE OUT THERE
Why Acting Like an Animal Comes So EasyAnimals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured.
—Yann Martel, Life of Pi
Sounds like an average day at the office, doesn’t it? Compulsion, necessity, the unforgiving social hierarchy, parasites . . . Oh, and the high supply of fear. That one I could feel butterfly-fluttering in my abdomen and ant-dancing out on the fringes of my peripheral nervous system. I was standing in front of the top North American distributors for a leading European manufacturer. We had assembled at a resort in the Grand Tetons, in an area still populated by grizzly bears and gray wolves, to which I expected shortly to be thrown. I’d been asked to give a talk about how businesspeople act like animals. I was vaguely nervous.
The top baboon for the North American division, a big, bluff fellow, sat in the front row, arms folded, with his wife (blond, witty, appealing) to one side and his head of sales (short, round, ebullient) on the other. At dinner the night before I had gotten to know many of these people by first name. I recalled a quote about how businesspeople “don’t like being compared to bare-ass monkeys.” I took a deep breath.
Everybody in the room had heard the statistic that humans are roughly 99 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees. By some estimates, the difference between our two species may be a matter of fewer than fifty genes, out of perhaps twenty-five thousand shared in common. But hardly anyone in the business world seems to have considered what that might mean in our working lives. More often than not, managers endeavor to minimize the human, much less the animal, element and make companies hum like machines. In their own lives, individual workers also tend to treat human nature mainly as something to be overcome, by getting the hair waxed from their torsos or added to their scalps, by dressing for success, by giving at least the appearance of handling stress. (Was that the serene brow of Botox I detected on a woman in the first row? It was really too early in my talk for her to be numb with boredom.)
I asked my audience to think for a moment about how their everyday workplace behavior might be shaped by forces that are less susceptible to change—by the drives and predispositions bequeathed to us by our long evolution first as animals and later as tribal humans. By fear. By anger. By the primordial yearning for social allies and for status. Think of yourself, I suggested, as part of a primate hierarchy unconsciously following thirty-million-year-old rules for establishing dominance and submission, for waging combat and maintaining peace. Think about how the alpha, whether chimpanzee or chief executive officer, typically asserts authority with the identical language of posture, stride, lift of chin, directness of gaze, the sharp glower to quell an unruly subordinate.
The head guy in the first row started to light up at this, especially when I got to the stuff about using political maneuvering among chimpanzees as a better way to understand boardroom confrontations. He surged out of his seat when the talk was done and launched into what he called the natural history of the boardroom.
In the upper echelons at company headquarters, he said, the conference tables are circular rather than rectangular, ostensibly for a round-table atmosphere of equality. “Well, bollocks,” he said. In fact, there is a distinct hierarchy, and everybody knows where everybody else stands, or sits, in it; the circular form merely makes the combat a little more open. In a week or two, he said, he’d be heading overseas for a meeting of a committee where the chairman had lately vacated his seat. “No one will say anything. But everyone will be looking at that seat and wondering who’s going to take it, whether anyone will have the audacity to sit there.”
“You should sit there,” the head of sales ventured.
“No, I’d be like the baboon trying to rise three steps above his rank—I’d get knocked down.” He was a realist, yet keen for the combativeness that would inevitably surface. “I love it,” he said. “Sometimes when there’s a kill about to happen, there’s a moment of hesitation when people aren’t sure if it’s going to happen.”
By now my eyes were beginning to widen.
“And then they get the scent, and they know it’s going to be okay, and they know who’s going to take the lead, and who’s going to come in for the kill.”
“It’s like the Serengeti,” the sales guy agreed. “The round table just makes it easier for everybody to see the kill.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” the head guy’s wife interjected, taking him gently by the elbow. “I’m really in control here.” And everybody laughed.
THIS COMPANY IS A ZOO
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that some businesspeople are in fact entirely prepared to liken themselves to bare-ass monkeys. They just want to be dominant, predatory bare-ass monkeys. Animal analogies have always ranked among the favorite clichés of the business world, where eight-hundred-pound gorillas run with the big dogs, swim with the sharks, occasionally find themselves up to their asses in alligators, and, if they are not crazy like a fox, can end up caught like a deer in the headlights.
When Richard Kinder quit Enron to form his own gas company in 1996, he disguised his dismay with Kenneth Lay’s leadership under a standard animalism: “If you aren’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” H. Ross Perot also resorted to animal analogies when he was tormenting the hapless, imperial General Motors CEO Roger Smith: “Revitalizing General Motors is like teaching an elephant to tap-dance. You find the sensitive spots and start poking.” (Or did he say “lap dance”? In any case, Lou Gerstner at IBM knew a good line when he saw it, and stole it for the title of his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?
) Even the eminently clever satirist Scott Adams ended up likening almost everybody in the working world of his antihero Dilbert to a weasel.
The truth beneath the clichés is that the lives of animals are not nearly so simple as we used to think. Nor are the lives of working people so complex as we like to believe. Moreover, the two have a lot in common, and not just in the obvious ways. For instance, aggressive business types often employ animal analogies because they mistake them for The Art of War by other means. The idea of animal troops ruled by “demonic males” dishing out “nature, red in tooth and claw” appeals to a certain view of business life: It really is a goddamn jungle out there. And don’t get me wrong. This is a very entertaining view, and one I intend to indulge fully over the course of this book. Like my North American division chief, we all love a good brawl, if only from a safe distance.
But it’s also a narrow, misleading point of view. Here’s the sort of surprising thing we can learn from a more careful look at the animal world: Even chimps spend only about 5 percent of their day in aggressive encounters. By contrast, they devote as much as 20 percent of the working day to grooming family, friends, and even subordinates. When they fight with rivals in the troop, they often go well out of their way, after the dust settles, to kiss and make up. And why should working people care how chimpanzees resolve their conflicts? Because our social behaviors and theirs evolved from the same ancestors and still follow many of the same rules. In one case described later in this book, a better understanding of the nature of reconciliation saved a company $75 million in litigation and insurance costs. Even in our everyday working lives, human bosses, like alpha chimps, sometimes drive their underlings beyond any reasonable limits. They might do better in life (and in business) if they understood just how far even a dumb ape will go to achieve harmony in the aftermath of conflict.
BITE THAT METAPHOR
Businesspeople regularly trot out animal analogies that make no sense. Despite their reputation as cold-eyed realists, they apparently have trouble separating fact from ridiculous fiction. You can do better:
Ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand. In fact, ostriches merely lower their heads to the ground to avoid detection while keeping an eye out for danger. Some biologists suggest that they are trying to disguise the 400-pound bulk of their torsos as a termite mound. But in the African savanna where they live, actually burying one’s head in the sand would be a good way to get bitten on the ass by a lion. (What biologists call “nonadaptive behavior.”)
Lemmings don’t leap off cliffs to commit mass suicide. When a population boom causes overcrowding, these Arctic rodents do the sensible thing and migrate en masse in search of a new home. A few of them may occasionally get crowded off a ledge as they swarm into unfamiliar territory. But it’s an accident. Really. The myth of mass suicide got enshrined in modern urban lore by Disney filmmakers in the 1950s, who had the dumb idea that forcing captive lemmings off a cliff would make for dramatic film footage.
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“A splendid writer—fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step.” —New York Times Book Review
“The Ape in the Corner Office
is an entertaining safari through the commercial jungle, observing the habits of business apes as they swing from branch office to branch office.” —Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape
“Chockablock with fascinating tales from the juxtaposition of natural history and work. If you’re thoughtful about what you do (and you care about how we got here), this is a page-turner.” —Seth Godin, author of All Marketers Are Liars
“Richard Conniff puts the business suit back on Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape
. This book moves beyond the simplistic embrace of aggression by sociobiologists of the past and the management clichés of today. Conniff effortlessly draws upon updated insights from ethology, economics, psychology, and the arts to apply factual insights to current headlines and everyday business life. The law of the jungle turns out to be a complex code of competition and cooperation that Conniff applies to entrepreneurial triumphs, governance collapses, the sharing spirit of inspired work teams, and the sabotage of conspiring colleagues. While this lively research-anchored book rewards the reader with engaging insights into the lives of celebrities, our co-workers, and our neighbors, it never feels like gossipy voyeurism, just vital clairvoyance.” —Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean, Yale School of Management From the Hardcover edition.
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