Does your boss ever remind you of an ape?
Snorting around, grunting orders, lurching through the office with his knuckles dragging the ground, beating his chest and growling every five minutes just to prove that he’s Chief Chimp in Charge.
Gorilla bosses have more in common with their grub-eating counterparts than you might think. Neurobiology research reveals significant parallels between the brain activity of workplace bullies and that of chest-thumping gorillas.
“The need to dominate, intimidate, and oppress has its basis in an innate, instinctual, primitive need,” suggests David Weiner, author of Power Freaks: Dealing With Them in the Workplace or Anyplace. Buried beneath our big modern brains is a more primitive limbic brain, an instinct-driven, survivalist-oriented system that closely resembles that of an ape. It’s the monkey mind that often takes over in times of stress or when there’s no fear of reprisal.
A bully boss may display a thin veneer of humanity in front of higher-ups and customers, yet buried beneath his (or her) fancy car, cushy office, and endless PowerPoint presentations is the mind of a monkey.
Weiner explains how ape-like behaviors manifest in the workplace. “The primitive brain mechanism drives us into creating hierarchies (promotions, executive perks, bonuses and salary ladders) and defending our territory (corner office, best parking spot, taking credit for the success of a group-generated project), two behaviors essential for primitive organization and survival,” he writes.
As a species that shares 98.5 percent of its DNA with chimps, it’s not surprising that the modern workplace—with its cubicles and organization trees— often resembles a fancied-up version of Planet of the Apes.
Weiner says, “Tension to move up the ranks or defend one’s position exists innately within our instinctual-emotional
minds and is activated when we sense an opportunity for advancement or we receive a challenge from someone attempting to displace us.”
The neurotransmitter serotonin is usually to blame. “When tested, the people you suspect (CEOs, sports stars, and overly ambitious middle managers) have richer serotonin levels than everyone else. And once your level goes up your outlook is permanently skewed,” says Weiner. You tend to believe that you’ve not only earned more perks, but that you deserve more perks.
Winning the big game or snagging a big account boosts feelings of dominance. Yet while the winners are jumping around, beating their chests, scientists have tracked negative changes in the neurons of higher animals after a “social defeat.”
Lest you think power-freak behavior is limited to men, remember the famous Queen of Mean, Leona Helmsley, who notoriously belittled employees and whose outrageous power trip ultimately landed her in jail? The results of the limbic power quiz on Weiner’s website (BrainTricks.com) indicate women are just as likely to be power freaks as men. The president of the PTA may have better hair than Donald Trump, yet she’s equally capable of dismissively barking, “You’re fired.”
So how do you keep primate behavior out of the workplace? The first secret is to spot it in yourself, and train yourself to listen to your higher mind. Decide in advance how you want to handle winning or losing so that neither can skew your perspective.
If you have an ape-like boss, peace will be harder to find. The secret to managing a monkey manager is to treat them just like the zookeeper does. Praise and respond to the behavior you like, and ignore them when they act like an ape.
And if that doesn’t work, you can always throw them a banana.