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The Ape in the Corner Office: Understanding the Workplace Beast in All of Us

The Ape in the Corner Office: Understanding the Workplace Beast in All of Us

by Richard Conniff

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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


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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From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt


Why Acting Like an Animal Comes So Easy

Animals 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.


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.


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.

Real weasels don’t wear tassels on their shoes. And they spend most of their time chasing down mice, rats, and other rodents. This makes them heroes, not villains, contrary to the chickenhouse myth. So if it’s not right to call your typical slimy record industry executive a “weasel,” what should you call him? Just say “sleazebag” and leave innocent animals out of it.

Sales reps sometimes talk about having a “salmon day.” You spend the whole day swimming upstream only to get screwed and die. But the sad truth is that salmon don’t even get screwed. They merely spill their seed and their eggs on the streambed, leaving the little gametes to mix it up on their own. Meanwhile, the happy couple goes belly up and drifts away to get eaten by a bear.

Then again, if you like animal analogies, this is probably a more realistic characterization of a day in the life of the average salesperson.


Shining an evolutionary light on the workplace isn’t just a clever way to rationalize bad behavior, or to find simple-minded justifications for maintaining the status quo. It is a useful approach to survival in the workplace. Moreover, it’s an approach that applies to any workplace, whether the workers happen to be greeting customers at a Wal-Mart in Los Angeles, or hanging Warhols at the Tate Modern in London, or stamping out toasters at a Haier Company plant in Qingdao, China. Understanding evolutionary propensities can help us manage conflict, build useful alliances, avoid backstabbings, survive boardroom assassination attempts, and understand the unspoken emotions revealed by the facial expressions of the people around us.

It can at times help companies manage the workplace to accommodate things people do naturally. For instance, W. L. Gore & Co., maker of Gore-Tex, has chosen to keep its plants and offices at what feels like a comfortable human scale—under two hundred employees. This is close to the maximum size of the tribal clans in which human society evolved, and some biologists say our brains are actually built to operate on this social scale. It isn’t what most companies mean when they talk about right-sizing. But Gore employees say it feels like the right size for working together effectively.

Ignoring evolutionary and biological propensities, on the other hand, often proves disastrous. For instance, the U.S. military has traditionally organized itself into companies of roughly the same tribal clan size, subdivided into platoons where thirty or so soldiers train together and develop the kind of tight, cohesive bond needed for deadly combat. But in the 1960s corporate-style managers tried to rethink this traditional structure and override human nature. Managerial types have always relished the idea of business as war. But it was a much worse mistake to believe they could wage war as business.

The introduction of assembly line practices meant that soldiers rotated into the Vietnam War as individuals on twelve-month tours, not as part of a tightly bonded social group. Their officers moved through even faster, getting their combat tickets punched for the purpose of career advancement, instead of having their lives bound to the survival and success of their foot soldiers. One victim of this thinking later suggested that the military would have been better off had it treated its troops literally like dogs: “Now, this is strange: The only reason I got to go to ’Nam with the unit I trained with is because I was in the Canine Corps. See, the army knew that the dogs would get depressed if they were broken up, so they kept them together. So the trainers got to stick together, too. But almost everybody else went in alone. Just interchangeable parts, like ammo clips or mortar shells. The army figured if you were a mortar man, you could do your job in any unit, so it didn’t matter what unit you were with or if you had any buddies there or anything. It’s funny when you think about it. Funny and sick. The army knew it was bad for the dogs to get split up, but it was okay for guys to go to hell all alone.”

This is the characteristic error of our time, if not of our species: We tell ourselves that we are rational beings, not animals, that we are in control of our postbiological world. We certainly don’t allow biology or emotions to control us. “I don’t do feelings,” Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy recently declared, with apparent contempt. “I’ll leave that to Barry Manilow.” In this view, work (and even warfare) is a purely logical business of balancing pros and cons to maximize profit and minimize loss. The truth, of course, is the opposite: We are emotional animals, and an evolutionary and anthropological view of the workplace is essential for survival in a competitive struggle that seems increasingly Darwinian.

The workplace has supplanted the tribe, the community, and even the family as the focus of our lives, and it has become the arena for all the behaviors that originally evolved in those contexts. Understanding our evolutionary and anthropological propensities has become even more important as our jobs have become less secure. The realization has crept up the ranks from the assembly line to customer service to engineers and even upper management that their jobs could be outsourced any day now to someone in Bangalore willing to do the same work for a fraction of the pay. (Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns now hire MBA financial analysts in India starting at $800 a month.) Workers in Bangalore are in turn acutely aware that a shift in currency rates or a period of political turmoil could just as easily send their jobs to Kuala Lumpur or to Ciudad Juarez.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Richard Conniff’s work takes him from the executive suite to a casual swim with piranhas in the Amazon, from tea in the member’s dining room at the House of Lords to the driver’s seat in a demolition derby. He won the 1997 National Magazine Award for his writing in Smithsonian and the 1998 Wildscreen Prize for Best Natural History Television Script for the BBC show Between Pacific Tides. His previous books include The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide and he has also written for Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Time, and National Geographic.

From the Hardcover edition.

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