Journal Review: When Boss Resembles Beast

Feeling growled at, bullied and preyed upon? Readers won’t come away from Richard Conniff’s “The Ape in the Corner Office”with a simple guide to surviving a beastly boss. But they’re likely to learn how their boss’s moves, not to mention their own, grow from mankind’s evolutionary roots in the animal kingdom.

Apparently apes — along with wolves, piranhas, swans and other beasts outside the office — have a lot to teach us about what goes on inside it, not least about managing hierarchies and getting the recognition we need to survive in the (corporate) jungle.

The jungle isn’t all about aggression, however. The apes that are most effective — the ones that rise to lead — know how to build alliances. They balance competition with collaboration. It’s not a bad lesson for all of us. Mr. Conniff notes that many primates “do their bonding mainly by grooming one another.” People don’t do this literally — thank goodness: “We do our grooming with words.” Thus flattery or soothing phrases — sincere or not — will help to win support for whatever our work interests may be.

Mr. Conniff has studied how animals operate in Africa and the Amazon and has also worked as a publishing executive. The two experiences, oddly, complement each other. Citing natural science and office ordeals, he shows why being a lone wolf often means being a loser, how facial expressions reveal our inner beast (he even provides a photo-guide to interpreting them) and how dominance-contests play out in a host of nonphysical ways — in the jungle and in the office.

Rather than attack one another, rival baboons sit in the treetops screaming “wah-hoo” until the one who shouts longest and loudest prevails. We have all been at meetings like this.

What makes this book most engaging are the anecdotes it offers about well-known executives — a kind of field guide to the great. There is Andy Grove, former chief executive of Intel Corp., who in his zeal to crush competitors like Motorola often ripped apart his underlings and drove them out the door. If Mr. Grove exhibited the markings of a “rough beast,” former IBM chief Lou Gerstner was more a grizzly bear who managed to shift his corporate culture from fat and lazy to lean and flexible. Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page, like spiders that build webs and let dinner come to them, adapted a sit-and-wait predator strategy by developing an Internet search engine that lures users to it.

“The Ape in the Corner Office” acknowledges that “applying animal analogies in the business environment can be hazardous.” It would be a mistake, for instance, to imitate the alpha-side of brutish chimps without also taking note of their attempts to make peace. But we clearly have a lot to learn from nature’s realm. By reminding us of our beastly behavior, Mr. Conniff illuminates our most human attributes at work.

Business, Company