30 July, 2014

CIO article: Leading through human instincts

In the business world, describing your boss as “ape-like” is not typically considered a compliment. Yet it turns out there is a lot we can learn from chimpanzees about effective leadership. Applying human instincts to the corporate jungle can help a CIO get the best performance from the IT team or manage technology change for end-users.

Chimpanzees share 98 per cent of our DNA, making them more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas. So it is little wonder that we have a lot in common. Primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, speaking at the CEO Forum luncheon organised by the Jane Goodall Institute of Australia at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo in June, explains that we share much of what we call human nature with our chimpanzee cousins. “Their brains are almost identical to ours, it’s just that ours are bigger, so they approach life and solve their problems in the same kind of reasoned way,” she says. “They’re not as good at it as us but it’s the same kind of pattern.”


Chimp society is hierarchical with the alpha male at the top of the pecking order. He commands the respect of the other chimps, takes the prime cuts of any meat for himself and enjoys – theoretically – exclusive breeding rights to the females. Status symbols are also important – for example, the current alpha male at Taronga has a favourite rock to sit upon that no one else is allowed to use. It is the chimpanzee equivalent to the corner office or managers’ car park.

All adult male chimpanzees aspire to the alpha role but each individual uses different strategies to try to get there. Chimps, like humans, can rule either by fear or love – but the two approaches are not equally effective. Goodall’s research on wild chimpanzees suggests that alpha males who rely on force to gain and maintain power tend to hold onto their position for two years. Those who take a friendlier approach remain in power for an average of 10 years.

“A real leader is a leader who leads because the others respect him and want to follow him,” Goodall says. “If he sets off on a boundary patrol the others will follow because they want to follow him. Whereas if the tyrant sets off the others won’t follow on boundary patrol because they don’t like him very much.”

Humans and chimpanzees are both social animals that organise first into family groups with lifetime bonds and then into wider communities. Research by Oxford professor Robin Dunbar suggests that while wild chimps tend to live in communities of about 50, brainer humans form family units of seven and belong to a wider clan of about 150. Author Andrew O’Keeffe, who launched his new business book Hardwired Humans at the Jane Goodall event, says the lessons for corporate structure are obvious. “As a CIO you have responsibility for the structure of the IT department and it’s helpful to know that the department would be most functional with teams of around seven,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of IT teams with one [manager] over one [employee] or one over two but it’s important to recognise the danger of very small or very large teams.” The book, which draws heavily on Goodall’s research on chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, is about using humans’ animal instincts in the business world.

Craig Scroggie, vice president and managing director of Symantec for the Pacific region, applied these lessons when he took the helm four years ago. In his presentation at the CEO Forum, Scroggie was frank about the extent of the problems facing the company. “Performance was poor, culture was poor, organisational design was poor,” he says. “We had managers managing one person who was managing one person who was managing one person and we even had two managers managing one person.” Reorganising the company according to the research on human and chimpanzee social structure led to a “massive transformation”. The Net Promoter Score for employee satisfaction was -38 four years ago and is +71.5 now, compared with a Symantec global average of +5.

Corporate communication is another perennial challenge for managers, especially when the rumour mill seems to operate in overdrive. Yet O’Keeffe insists that effective leaders should actually encourage rather than stifle gossip. “All social animals have a form of grooming and for us gossip is grooming without the fleas,” he says. “Dr Jane Goodall says there can be no relations between chimps without grooming and it’s the same for us with gossip, or social chit-chat.” When teams are spread apart geographically or staff work outside the office, O’Keeffe says managers should compensate by creating opportunities for non-task interaction.

The trick is to use gossip to your advantage by influencing the ‘classifying moment’ – the moment when people decide whether news is good or bad. O’Keeffe says it’s a myth that humans are hardwired to resist change. “If that were true, we would still be living in caves,” he says. However, if someone can’t immediately classify something as good news they will instinctively assume the worst. This means the first seven words of any communication is key to how news will be received, though he cautions that this is not about spinning bad news. One effective strategy for change management is to confide in people one by one to create buzz among employees ahead of a formal announcement.

One of the tasks facing many CIOs is to manage diversity. IT departments are often quite ethnically diverse, while the technology industry is often challenged to increase opportunities for women. Chimpanzees do not face this problem – the species is very male dominated, with even the lowliest male dominating all the females. Meanwhile, a strange chimpanzee who encroaches the territory of another group is usually brutally murdered or, in the case of unencumbered breeding females, forcibly captured.

If humans are like chimps, this means that managers and staff alike need to make a special effort to overcome innate prejudice. “If we know what our instincts are, we’re probably the only animal that can make alternative choices if we bring our knowledge into consciousness and decide whether our natural tendency is okay or we want to do something different,” O’Keeffe says. “The way the business world works is more inclined to dominance by males … and I don’t think we’ll see a big enough change unless we push the pace with quotas,” he says.

In fact, Goodall notes that chimpanzees will also adapt their natural tendencies to their circumstances. “In the wild it’s definitely a male-dominated society but interestingly when you come into captivity you may have a female who’s been there longer and the males do tend to respect the females more,” she says. “Chimps in a captive situation are also better at resolving conflict quickly than in the wild because they have to be.”

Human nature is not fixed – nurture also has a role to play. Effective business leaders are those who work with human instincts to shape corporate culture – and sometimes that might involve acting like an ape.

The nine human (and chimpanzee) instincts

1. Social belonging
2. Hierarchy and status
3. Emotions before reason
4. First impressions to classify
5. Loss aversion
6. Gossip
7. Empathy and mind reading
8. Confidence before realism (optimism)
9. Contest and display

Source: Hardwired Humans by Andrew O’Keeffe

The alpha male at Taronga Zoo

Lubutu became the alpha male at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo at the tender age of eight, when the previous one died unexpectedly. Being the oldest male at the time, he achieved the position by default. However, he brought certain advantages to the role – a good upbringing by his high-ranking mother and grandmother, his intelligence, and the fact he had observed the leadership styles of two alpha males before him.

“He thought about the fact that he needed help to achieve longevity in the alpha male role so Lubutu very smartly formed alliances with the females and their offspring and he did so by grooming the lower ranking and also the higher ranking females and by allowing the infants of those females to play with him, to take food from him and generally to interact with him,” says Louise Grossfeldt, head of primates at the zoo.

Ten years on, Lubutu has survived several challenges from other males in the group. Chimbuka, described by Grossfeldt as the “night club bouncer” type with brawn rather than brains simply tried to challenge Lubutu on his own. Although he had physical strength on his side in one-to-one combat, he was immediately jumped on by 17 females to show him who was boss.

This article was published by CIO magazine in August 2011 and can be viewed online here. No reproduction of the text without prior written permission. Pictures are courtesy the Jane Goodall Institute of Australia.