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.