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Reflections of the Ape in the Corner Office

Updated on August 2, 2020

Understanding the Workplace Beast In Us

When we think of anthropology with think of it in terms of history. In other words, we do not look at human evolution or link between apes and men from a modern-day perspective. Our thoughts about anthropology and evolutionary biology commonly look backward in time as opposed to concentrating on any facet of the present. To learn about the missing link between primates and humans, all we have to do is....look at ourselves on the job.

Primates and Professionals: The Naked Ape in the Workplace

Human beings have been called the ''naked ape'' for a reason. We share several traits with our primate cousins. Scores of these traits manifest in ways we never realize even though the characteristics are always right in front of us.

This is why Richard Conniff's “The Ape in the Corner Office: Understanding the Workplace Beast in All of Us” remains such an eye-opening work. The book delves into primordial and primate rooted behavior of humans in their natural habitat – the everyday workplace, a place were alpha creatures survive through a suit and tie version of survival of the fittest. Upon reading Conniff's work, it becomes evident that many of the traits of the “savage beast” still exist in a seemingly modern man. The only difference is the evolution of the environment. Workplace habits frequently hearken back to the more primitive stages of humanity's development.

Humans seemingly believe the modern human started around the Age of the Enlightenment. A strong case can be made the Enlightenment forever changed people's intellectual and cultural pursuits. In terms of eradicating the link between ourselves and our prehistoric ancestors, the Enlightenment cannot do that. Millions of years of evolution cannot be altered by a few hundred years in changes towards reasoning.

We have certain traits that are ingrained in us based on those millions of years. Conniff expertly points out that those traits exist beneath the surface of our logic and reasoning and emerge in subtle ways when we stake territory in the office.

This does not mean we have not involved in any way. To make such an assessment would be absurd. It would, however, be equally foolish to assume we could through away certain evolutionary and genetic traits that have been present in humanoids for millions of years and dismiss their impact after only a few hundred years of enlightenment.

The Apes Among Us in the Office

In Conniff's work, he mentions [Office] “fights have little to do with making a better product.....or building a better company. Those are the pretexts in which we fight for things that matter in our primate hearts.” (Page 70) Now you know why an office skirmish can seem like the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, one ape had its skull cracked with a femur bone swung by a fellow ape after tiring of constant bossiness.

Survival of the fittest and the need to reach the top of the food chain, traits first ingrained in a primitive time, can create the drive to succeed in the workforce. The motivations for all this drive might not be what we assume it is on the surface: a promotion, a raise, status, and so on. Something innate and deeply entrenched in the psyche and, perhaps, even the biochemistry is internally motivating a professional's office pursuits. Sometimes these things work for a good cause and other times they can make the office a constant headache of a nightmare.

The Will to Power and Its Discontents

Motivations may be benevolent, such as hoping to achieve a greater good or right a past injustice. Others in the office will be driven to silence internal criticisms or gain revenge on people that wronged them in their life. The latter is commonly the troublesome bosses that are impossible to work for. Their actions in the office reflect a formerly powerless person that now in on a massive power or ego trip. Employees rarely can appease such characters because they do not realize the way to please them is to work around their narcissistic needs or try to deliver them. Or, there is a better strategy....go work somewhere else. If you are hired to be an administrative assistant you probably don't want to end up doing that job and performing as an uncompensated behavioral therapist.

Success in an office environment requires an understanding of human psychology. This is not so you can help others, but so you can help yourself. Is not self-survival the most primal of needs that have to be met? Gaining such an understanding can help you navigate even the most difficult of work environment.

Here are a few words to consider:

In the office, never lose sight of the fact you are dealing with a naked ape.

Better yet, read Conniff's book. It is quite revealing about the ape in all of us.


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