The Ape in the Corner Office: How to Make Friends, Win Fights and Work Smarter by Understanding Human Nature
By Richard Conniff
Animal behavior research probably owes an apology to anybody who has ever been victimized by a self-aggrandizing business leader. (Yes, yes, I'm so sorry. Please take a number. The line today is only ten thousand miles long.) Ideas from the jungle and the savanna have had a profound influence on the behavior of great corporations. And given my premise that a natural-history point of view can be a helpful approach to workplace behavior, this ought to be a good thing, right?
Sadly, not always.
One problem is that scientists are human, too, and often find in the natural world exactly what their theories and predispositions incline them to find. Moreover, even the best biological ideas are often fragmentary and misinterpreted, not to say butchered, by the time they filter through to the boardroom and the comer office.
For a lot of businesspeople even now, the only thing from Darwin that matters is a phrase he did not invent, "survival of the fittest," typically invoked when compensation for top management takes the express elevator to the penthouse as low-ranking workers are being fork-lifted into the abyss. (Darwin borrowed the phrase "survival of the fittest" from the philosopher Herbert Spencer. But he never regarded sociopathic behavior as a mark of fitness, and he ridiculed those who did. "I have noted in a Manchester newspaper a rather good squib," he wrote to a colleague, "showing that I have proved 'might is right' and therefore Napoleon is right and ever}' cheating tradesman is also right.")
The idea of executives as ruthless predators got a further boost from the scientific world in the mid-twentieth century. Biologists who had lived through the horrors of World War II commonly depicted early human ancestors as brutal, bloodthirsty killers. Every college student read On Aggression, in which Konrad Lorenz argued that humans are innately violent. Or if they didn't read it, they saw the "killer ape" idea embodied in Lord of the Flies, where schoolboy castaways degenerate into tribal savagery. They saw it distilled in the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which some hairy ancestor slaughters his enemy and then tosses his bloody weapon, a bone, into the air, where it somersaults across the millennia and becomes magically transformed into a space station: all of human achievement was thus supposedly rooted in our violent nature. This underlying belief persists even now in the abundance of images of executives, management coaches, and even politicians putting on the full killer-ape pose, with arms folded and lips pressed together: No nonsense. Me alpha. Mean business.
Over the past few decades, no biological idea has been more widely misinterpreted or had a more destructive influence on business behavior than "the selfish gene." In his 1976 book by that catchy title, Oxford evolutionist Richard Dawkins argued that we are little more than a product of our genes, and that these genes have survived by being as ruthlessly competitive as Chicago gangsters.
The title was a metaphor. Genes obviously are neither selfish nor unselfish; they have no motives. Dawkins merely meant that the basic business of a gene is to get as many copies of itself as possible into the next generation, by whatever means. He has protested ever since that he never meant to advocate selfish behavior as the best way to accomplish that. "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism," he wrote in his book, "because we are born selfish."
The idea of our innate selfishness, like the idea of survival of the fittest, had an intuitive logic, and some people latched onto it with glee. Since the time of Aristotle, critics had disdained merchants and other commercial types for being selfish bastards. Now, after two thousand years in denial, businesspeople suddenly said, "Oh, Right. And your point is what, exactly?"
"In the last twenty or so years, something very odd has happened," John Kay, a professor of management at Oxford, remarked in a 1998 speech. "This unattractive characterization of business, previously put forward only by those who were hostile to it, has been enthusiastically adopted by businesspeople themselves. They no longer feel obliged to deny that their motives are selfish, their interests narrow, and their behavior instrumental. They routinely assert that profit is the defining purpose of business activity." Kay didn't stick the blame for this on his Oxford colleague Dawkins. There was no shortage of other voices to blame, notably the University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who in 1970 declared, "The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits." But Friedman was merely saying what everyone expects a free-market economist to say.
Dawkins, on the other hand, was a biologist, and, his own intentions to the contrary, he provided businesspeople with reason to think that selfish behavior was more than a matter of economic convenience. It was also natural. And if it was natural, why be shy about it?
In fact, why not take it to every possible absurd extreme? Why not devote a company, Tyco, to the purpose of giving CEO Dennis Kozlowski's wife a birthday party in Sardinia, featuring an ice sculpture of Michelangelo's David pissing Stolichnaya? Why not make WorldCom a personal piggy bank for Bernie Ebbers? In this blinkered, egomaniacal spirit, one American broadcaster, a self-styled "scourge of the liberal media," recently argued that Michael Milken's selfish greed did more for humanity than Mother Teresa's selfless generosity.
But what if the idea of our innate selfishness is wrong?
Or maybe that's putting it a little too optimistically. What if we are born with raging little egos (as anyone who has ever tried to comfort a squalling infant at three in the morning will readily attest), but also just as innately born to satisfy our selfish needs by being social and cooperative, even altruistic? This isn't an easy idea to accept, particularly for businesspeople who feel that being "tough" or "hard-nosed" is the necessary price for success, or even survival.
To be frank, it isn't easy for me to accept either. When I last occupied a comer office, as managing editor of a magazine with an editorial staff of thirty, it was my job to be critical and demanding, and I often took it to the point of being abrasive, as old colleagues still frequently remind me with almost no provocation. My subsequent career as a writer has also inclined me to the normal journalistic fondness for harsh words, bad news, and good fights. When I write about business, it's typically about misbehavior. When I write about natural history, the subtext is usually violence.
As a writer for National Geographic, I have raced wild dogs to the bloody scene of a kill in Botswana, and once, in the Serengeti, witnessed cheetahs take down six gazelles in a single day. And I can assure you that this is the day I wrote about, rather than the previous three weeks spent watching cheetahs preen and loll about in the sun. "Nature, red in tooth and claw" may not be an accurate or representative view of animal life, but it's what people want to read. Like most authors, I also have a raging little ego and once published a book with the dedication "To hell with you all." So it's safe to say that my own predispositions did not incline me to look for cooperative behaviors, in the jungle or the workplace. But researching this book, and looking at humans and other animals with this book in mind, has made me think we have been overlooking the central fact of our working lives: Nature built us to be nice.