Ape in the Corner Office: Understanding the WorkPlace Beast in All of Us


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 ...

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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 findwritten 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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781415924266
  • Publisher: Books on Tape, Inc.

Read an Excerpt


Why Acting Like an Animal Comes So Easy

Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within anunforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fearis high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantlybe 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, andthe high supply of fear. That one I could feel butterfly-fluttering inmy abdomen and ant-dancing out on the fringes of my peripheral nervoussystem. I was standing in front of the top North American distributorsfor a leading European manufacturer. We had assembled at a resort inthe Grand Tetons, in an area still populated by grizzly bears and graywolves, to which I expected shortly to be thrown. I’d been asked togive a talk about how businesspeople act like animals. I was vaguelynervous.

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 ofthese 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 roughly99 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees. By some estimates, thedifference between our two species may be a matter of fewer than fiftygenes, out ofperhaps twenty-five thousand shared in common. But hardlyanyone in the business world seems to have considered what that mightmean in our working lives. More often than not, managers endeavor tominimize the human, much less the animal, element and make companieshum like machines. In their own lives, individual workers also tend totreat human nature mainly as something to be overcome, by getting thehair waxed from their torsos or added to their scalps, by dressing forsuccess, by giving at least the appearance of handling stress. (Wasthat 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 everydayworkplace behavior might be shaped by forces that are less susceptibleto change—by the drives and predispositions bequeathed to us by ourlong evolution first as animals and later as tribal humans. By fear. Byanger. By the primordial yearning for social allies and for status.Think of yourself, I suggested, as part of a primate hierarchyunconsciously following thirty-million-year-old rules for establishingdominance and submission, for waging combat and maintaining peace.Think about how the alpha, whether chimpanzee or chief executiveofficer, typically asserts authority with the identical language ofposture, stride, lift of chin, directness of gaze, the sharp glower toquell an unruly subordinate.

The head guy in the first row started to light up at this, especiallywhen I got to the stuff about using political maneuvering amongchimpanzees as a better way to understand boardroom confrontations. Hesurged out of his seat when the talk was done and launched into what hecalled the natural...
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