The Ape in the Corner Office: Understanding the Workplace Beast in All of Us
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Tired of swimming with the sharks? Fed up with that big ape down the hall? Real animals can teach us better ways to thrive in the workplace jungle.
You’re ambitious and want to get ahead, but what’s the best way to do it? Become the biggest, baddest predator? The proverbial 800-pound gorilla? Or does nature teach you to be more subtle and sophisticated?
Richard Conniff, the acclaimed author of The Natural History of the Rich, has survived savage beasts in the workplace jungle, where he hooted and preened in the corner office as a publishing executive. He’s also spent time studying how animals operate in the real jungles of the Amazon and the African bush.
What he shows in The Ape in the Corner Office is that nature built you to be nice. Doing favors, grooming coworkers with kind words, building coalitions—these tools for getting ahead come straight from the jungle. The stereotypical Darwinian hard-charger supposedly thinks only about accumulating resources. But highly effective apes know it’s often smarter to give them away. That doesn’t mean it’s a peaceable kingdom out there, however. Conniff shows that you can become more effective by understanding how other species negotiate the tricky balance between conflict and cooperation.
Conniff quotes one biologist on a chimpanzee’s obsession with rank: “His attempts to maintain and achieve alpha status are cunning, persistent, energetic, and time-consuming. They affect whom he travels with, whom he grooms, where he glances, how often he scratches, where he goes, what times he gets up in the morning.” Sound familiar? It’s the same behavior you can find written up in any issue of BusinessWeek or The Wall Street Journal.
The Ape in the Corner Office connects with the day-to-day of the workplace because it helps explain what people are really concerned about: How come he got the wing chair with the gold trim? How can I survive as that big ape’s subordinate without becoming a spineless yes-man? Why does being a lone wolf mean being a loser? And, yes, why is it that jerks seem to prosper—at least in the short run?
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ancestor. Pinprick handshakes and other occasions of pain, fear, and danger also take the high road, registering in the consciousness—except for people, such as Claparède’s patient, who have suffered damage to the cortex. But in all of us, the signs of fear and danger take the low road first, sending information fast and dirty to a small almond-shaped region of the brain called the amygdala, from the Latin word for “almond.” If the cortex is the part of the brain that makes us human, the
animal behavior researcher in Sri Lanka, built an empire at Computer Associates on what he conceived to be a “Darwinian” model, fostering a culture of extreme challenges, sharp disagreements, and abrupt dismissals for underperformers. Even customers sometimes got ground down in the process. When Albertson’s resisted pressure to sign a multiyear license in 1999, Kumar and his associates threatened to shut down the existing software on which the entire grocery chain depended. In a good year,
T. (eds.) (1994), The Neurotransmitter Revolution: Serotonin, Social Behavior, and the Law, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, p. 130. The importance of greetings: de Waal (1982), p. 118. Don Tommy: New York Magazine, March 3, 2003. A chorus of agreement to former dumb idea: Lutz (2003), p. 181. Frodo’s lip chewing: National Geographic, December 1995. Watching Ross Perot’s left ear: Levin, D. (1989), Irreconcilable Differences, Boston: Little, Brown, p. 103. The boss’s cigar:
highway. The researchers suggested that the universal human “sense of fairness” and the aversion to inequity may be much older than we think. These social emotions are powerful enough to induce the monkeys to hurt themselves, throwing away food for which they had paid good money, rather than accept an unfair deal. Despite the myth of “rational economic man,” we humans don’t behave any more logically, driving miles out of our way because we think the local shop once treated us badly, or quitting
whether the two people mirrored each other. Oregon State University researcher Frank Bernieri and his team then went back to the one-minute clips and made a detailed record of seating proximity, smiling, gesturing, and mirroring behaviors (or synchrony). It turned out that the couples most often judged to like each other weren’t necessarily the ones who smiled or nodded the most—and that test subjects relied on synchrony far more than anyone imagined. Our tendency to imitate one another also