In theory ... The Ape in the Corner Office

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak.

Richard Conniff is an American science writer who has tickled business with his latest book, The Ape in the Corner Office, which compares workplace human behaviour with animal behaviour in the jungle. If you've ever noticed your boss picking fleas out from the hair on his arms or scratching his backside unbecomingly, that's all the proof you need that he really is an ape.

Conniff spent years observing animals in their natural habitat and uses his experience to draw conclusions that leave you in no doubt that, beneath our suits or scruffy jeans, we are all, essentially, animals. "Workplace behaviours that we take to be no more than the whim of the moment often turn out, on closer examination, to be rooted millions of years deep in our biology," he writes. "Understanding these roots can be a revelation."

You might be surprised about what Conniff's observations reveal. We are not all big, bad predators, out to win at whatever cost to our fellow humans. He argues that we are built to be nice: doing favours, sharing food, grooming colleagues with kind words and hot gossip. In the workplace jungle, we build our power bases through influence and sophisticated cooperation rather than violent confrontations. "Our default mode as social animals is not selfishness, but strategic altruism," writes Conniff.

So what can the third sector manager learn from the behaviour of our hairy cousins? Once you've read the book, a funny thing will start to happen. Suddenly, you'll be observing colleagues in a completely different way, noticing the little things that betray their inner chimp. Spend a week watching how members of your team interact and you'll soon notice who has sway over whom.

Once you've got the measure of things, remember that it is your role to be head orang-utan. Hold back from banging your fists on your desk and grunting and howling - this will not get you anywhere. Instead, concentrate on building a strong relationship with the leader in your pack. Once you've got them on your side, you'll soon be King Louie to The Jungle Book's monkeys.

- Emma De Vita is editor of the books pages on Management Today.

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