The secret to out-aping a primate boss

Much of human behaviour, specifically at work, mimics the behaviour of our hairy ancestors and cousins.

The WSJ cites an author who observes two colleagues talking over coffee and how the more powerful one ‘stares down’ the subordinate when a contentious issue is raised in the conversation. Classic non-verbal alpha male behaviour of the kind we’ve all seen at work.

But what’s not mentioned in the article is that by being a human rather than an ape we can transcend this kind of primate behaviour using the very human skill of empathy. A less ‘dominant’ but smart and empathic human can say something like ‘Gosh you look like you tensed up when I said that. Are you OK? Did I offend you? How are you feeling about what I just said?’ Suddenly, the non-verbal ‘threat’ is made much more visible and the dominant is forced to interact at a higher, more human level. At that point the primate advantage is lost and you’re on a level playing field for a fair and constructive conversation.

If it were true that alpha male types are better suited to, and more succesful in leadership roles then wouldn’t we see the majority of positions of power filled by men like this? Hmmm oh dear, yes unfortunately we actually do. BUT this is changing fast.

I can’t recall any serious article in recent times advising on aggressive, domineering alpha male behaviour as a recipe for success at work. However I do see a big trend towards empathy, communication and, frankly, more female traits as the recipe for success.

Next time anyone tries to use alpha male tactics on you, don’t ignore it or try to fight it head-on, just use a little empathy to uncover their true feelings.

4 thoughts on “The secret to out-aping a primate boss

  1. Hi Tom, I once had a boss who insisted I look out of the window when I was aiming to present business ideas to him – I’d call those gorilla tactics! Actually, I’ve never worked that one out.

  2. Interesting aggressive use of the concept of empathy there Tom.

    So it’s a technique to use in a competitive environment then rather than a behavioural practice to adopt to assist in the process of interacting with ones fellow wo/man?

    In fact I agree with where you are coming from; I’ve just spent an evening with some nice people who whose hearts are in the right place and who do good things but whose minds / brains haven’t yet gotten round to recognising where they really are in this / their world.

    When you are / have gotten to be ahead of the curve it’s difficult to really see where the curve is for those who are behind it – I find.

    But it’s always good to be looking for better ways of encouraging / helping folk to recognise the existance of the curve and how one might negotiate one’s way around it!

    Socrates made a reasoable ‘fist’ of it and JS Mill had a go but we’re still left with the task of sorting it out – and, probably, we’ll always be looking for a better way of doing things.

    • The idea in this case was to use empathy to rise above aggression. Not sure why you think it’s implied that you wouldn’t use empathy to improve relationships. That’s exactly what it’s for, even with a primate boss! It’s a better reaction to ‘alpha male’ behaviour – neither rising to the fight, nor back down, but trying to unpick what feelings lead the other person to behave in that way, and then dealing with whatever that might be.

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