Ape Dynamics

Guest blogger Dr Katalin Csatadi, ethologist (animal behaviour professional) of Apemanagement compares the behaviour of the bonobo to that of the human.

The bonobo community was ready for a break after travelling and looking for food for two straight hours. That is hard work and the clearing they found looked ideal for some rest. The dominant female occupied the nicest, sunniest, most comfortable patch in the clearing. She looked in the distance with her beautiful dark eyes, then looked down and started grooming her infant daughter, clinging on her belly. Within a minute she was followed by her two closest friends; one of them immediately started grooming her right shoulder while the other one chose her daughter’s arm and was gently picking at it.

The whole group broke up into smaller subgroups like this. Less dominant individuals occupied less comfortable places but they were grooming each other too. A young female, not mature yet, who arrived to the group just a few weeks ago went from one grooming party to the other, trying to groom an older female. More often than not she was chased away but sometimes the older females tolerated her presence if she groomed herself quietly. The males were grooming each other too but you could see some of the older males just sitting around a little further from the group on their own, quietly picking at their own arms, dozing off in the sun. Then the calmness of the morning was broken by a strange noise. It sounded like if a train was approaching. Everybody’s eyes turned to where the noise coming from and suddenly a young male broke into the clearing, pulling an enormous, leafy branch after himself. Males and females equally jumped out of his way; all but the dominant female. Instead, she stood up and screamed towards the displaying male. He pulled the branch a little further, until the female threatened to teach him a lesson. As soon as it was clear to him that she meant business, he dropped the branch and ran back to the forest. Somehow he still had enough time to slap the young female who was desperately trying to groom someone.

Do you now have a good picture of the resting bonobo group? Now imagine that you’re at the canteen of your workplace, at coffee break. Would it be so different to how members of this imaginary bonobo group spent their break? The boss takes the best table, from where he can see the whole team, doesn’t he? Literally speaking he might not have a baby to groom, but if projects are babies – and they are, aren’t they – then he definitely does and it is worth grooming him for. He might not have ticks picked out of his hair but people will be chatting and gossiping with him. Chatting and gossiping goes on at every table. New colleagues will desperately look for friends in the team and loner males will drink their coffee on their own, no matter what. And you’ll always have the young, feisty bloke trying to undermine everyone else and challenge the boss’s authority. If you’re lucky and your boss knows his job, the challenger will run back to the forest – his office, I mean! If not, you are likely to witness a lot of uncertainty and instability, hastily brought decisions until the old boss gives in.

As Maddy mentioned in her post of her chimpanzee experience in Uganda, humans and apes share up to 98% of their genes. No surprise then that our behaviour is so very similar as well. This is why Apemanagement® looks at people management from a biological perspective. At their training they claim that, “Most problems are not caused by false or lacking systems, but by the behaviour of people. Still, most of the time solutions are sought by improving systems and procedures or tougher legislation”. So tomorrow, when you need to make a people related decision at work, take a moment before you decide and have a think: Why does your young colleague do what she does? Perhaps she just wants friends. Perhaps she wants more. Grooming her (chatting, that is!) definitely won’t hurt.

Apemanagement’s® mission is to translate academic research from biology and the behavioural sciences into usable and practical knowledge, as well as learning methods that can be used to address everyday social issues. Their key areas of current focus are management and corporate behaviour, bullying and choice of partner.

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