Sunday, 13 January 2008

Make a monkey of the boss and succeed in business

Jan 14 2008 by Emma Johnson, Liverpool Daily Post

THE politics of the office are thought to be a matter peculiar to western culture. For the office politician to be able to deploy his or her Machiavellian tactics and chicanery, it is necessary to have a large corporate setting to manoeuvre among staff and management.

After all, in small organizations, everyone is busy actually doing things to achieve their goals, otherwise matters grind to a halt.

But clich├ęs that the office is a jungle appear to be fact. Big companies are not necessary for office politics to thrive. Behavior patterns of jockeying for preferment are replicated among monkeys and chimps in the wild. Understanding their strategies is as useful as any insight into climbing up the corporate ladder or holding onto your job.

In the US, a study reported by the New Scientist magazine sets out “five rules of the jungle” that we would all be wise to assimilate for our corporate survival.

“The office and the jungle are surprisingly similar,” write the psychologists who undertook the research. It makes sense, really. Both social groups are ruled by stringent hierarchies, but both have to find a balance between the natural drive for competition and simultaneous need for co-operation to ensure the group’s successful continuation.

To this already complicated and often contradictory mix, there is the risk of hostile takeovers, a marketplace of favours and favourites, brazen opportunism. And – let’s not forget it – the long and ignominious tradition of brown-nosing.

What this means in totality, say the scientists, is that “you can’t tell the savanna from a forest of cubicles.”

Monkeying around takes on a more serious meaning with New Scientist summarizing five basic jungle rules that have emerged from the research that are applicable to the office.

We’d all do well to adhere to these guidelines if we want to learn how to cope with aggressive colleagues and over-demanding bosses. In other words, we do much worse than to make a chimp of ourselves.

Apparently monkeys, just like human beings, bridle at being treated unfairly. Trust is everything: it can be quickly established, but is difficult to retrieve if relations break down.

The monkeys even go on strike if they feel they are being let-down or short-changed by those in charge.

The researchers trained the monkeys to trade pebbles for food, which could be a commonplace piece of cucumber, or the much more valued grape. In a communal situation, if the researcher gave one monkey a grape and another a cucumber piece for doing the same task, the one that received the cucumber would down tools and refuse to take any further part in the experiment.

Apart from the blatant unfairness of the work/reward equation, the lesson that carries over to the office situation is that a single person should avoid taking credit for work that is done collectively.

Office relationships collapse when workers hijack their colleagues’ efforts; it is also unwise for individuals to brag about their salaries.

The second monkey rule of office behaviour is not only to have colleagues on your side, but also the boss (which could well be the more important). Other studies already indicate that primates who spend time currying favor with their superiors receive more backing when any arguments or fights occur.

But as important – and one often forgotten by the so-called superior human beings – is the third rule: the need for reconciliation and to avoid bearing a grudge.

Chimps embrace and even kiss after a fight, dolphins rub alongside each other and goats nuzzle. This magnanimity reduces stress and prevents the dispute re-igniting.

Team playing underpins the fourth rule, as chimps and humans prefer the company of co-operative fellows. Show your kind and caring side, even simple activities like making tea and buying buns for the department can repeat multiple benefits.

Finally, the fifth rule is probably the hardest: be a good boss. An acutely difficult act of balancing leadership, control and motivation. The failure of those in charge is also replicated in the wild, with insensitive chimps having to fight constantly to maintain their status, while their group becomes increasingly stressed.

It’s a wonder that any work gets done at all, isn’t it?