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The corporate world = a bunch of chimpanzees. Really.

by Celine on January 11th, 2008

So, you think you’re quite evolved sitting in your workstation, checking your iPhone, and sipping a latte. Before you get too proud of how far you’ve gotten on both the corporate and evolutionary ladder, step back. You might not be as evolved as you think you are.

An article on this week’s New Scientist magazine entitled “It’s a Jungle Out There” shows that despite our office cubicles and workstations, our workplace politics aren’t any different from the politics of chimpanzees in the jungle. I happen to agree.

First, a few similarities:

  • Hierarchy. Both corporations and chimpanzee communities have an obvious hierarchy.
  • Cooperation. For the collective to succeed, the members have to play their roles and cooperate. In sharp contrast to this is -
  • Competition. Whether it’s for the attention of a prospective mate or the insurance of one’s survival, both jungle and office building residents have a strong drive to compete.

Any society, man or chimpanzee, needs a few rules to live by. These rules are common to both jungle and office politics:

You need to be a team player. Chimpanzees hunt and gather food together, warn each other against nearby predators, and even watch over each other’s offspring. Observations from the Primate Research Center at Emory University show that when a chimp grooms a friend, he or she is more likely to receive some extra food from that friend later in the day. Chimps who support friends in a fight or a mutiny against the big boss are also more likely to receive special privileges of food and sex if they end up winning.

Similarly, in a corporation, although you’ll find yourself in stiff competition with colleagues over promotions and rewards, you still need to defend your “territory” against your company’s competitors. Teamwork always pays and the one who gets to the top, doesn’t get there without the team’s support.

Sucking up has its benefits. Chimps spend a lot of time grooming those who are above them in the community hierarchy. It turns out that the more time they spend grooming their friends, the more likely they’ll be supported in fights. In the corporate jungle, if you’re a professional brown-noser, odds are your supervisor will back you up for projects, promotions, or raises.

Be a good leader. While some bosses, chimp or human, can be needlessly aggressive and domineering, this isn’t good for the team when it’s overdone. This tends to raise the group’s stress levels, increasing the chances of health problems - including high blood pressure and infertility. With that in mind, the chimp leaders with the longest tenures are those who know how to show others that they’re in charge while being able to share food to those who support them. Think of this the next time you get the urge to throw your briefcase at the mail room clerk.

Know how to settle arguments. There’s bound to be some nasty disagreements once in a while. Chimps, dolphins, goats, and a variety of other animals are known to approach each other after a fight. Often, it’s the one who loses who initiates the making up. If you know how to reconcile in the office, you’ll have a better chance of making it alive than if you were full of pride and refuse to apologize.

Fairness is key. Scientists discovered that brown capuchin monkeys reject around 80% of their food rewards when they noticed that they have been given unequal rewards in exchange for the same object. In a corporation, workers are likely to quit or go on strike if they’re given unfair pay or benefits. So if you want your staff to stay with you, you need to show them that you reward them equally for any equal efforts. If monkeys can spot favoritism, so can your staff.

The insightful New Scientist article discussed above is available online. Click here to read it.

Notice any other similarities between animal relationships and the way your colleages interact? Share them with us in the comments.

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POSTED IN: Humor, Office politics, Survival Skills, Workplace Wellness, Workplace hacks

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