Baboons and the destructive force of hierarchy

- Leadership

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by Vasco Duarte

I don’t know about you guys, but in times of stress I have (not so) quietly called one or two of my most hierarchical managers a ‘baboon’. And after seeing this video starring Dr. Robert Sapolski and some political savvy baboons, I realized I was right all the time.

Sapolski has been studying baboon societies for over thirty years. Most of those groups are highly hierarchical. At the start of the movie we see a big male baboon losing a fight. And since baboon society is all about torturing down the line, we see him chase a sub-adult, who on his turn bites a female adult who on her turn goes on slapping a juvenile and throwing an infant out of a tree. Yes, I know; it looks just like an average day at the office.
Sapolski admits that, although he loves some of the individual baboons he studies, he actually doesn’t very much like baboons as a species. He calls them ‘backstabbing Machiavelli bastards who are awful to each other’. And he knows what he’s talking about, his research shows that a baboon’s rank determines the number of stress hormones in his system. The lower their status, the higher their blood pressure and number of stress hormones. It even has an effect on brain chemistry in a bad way.

From Disaster To Opportunity

Some twenty years ago, one of the groups Sapolski studied raided a food dump. Unfortunately the meat they found was infected with the disease TBC and it killed all the alpha males of the group. Leaving only the women and, as Sopalski calls them, the good guys.

After that something strange happened. As the aggression component died with the top brass, the stress was gone as well. It completely changed the atmosphere and even now, about twenty years later, the group thrives and still has a very relaxed style. New males who joint the group and who are only familiar with a violent hierarchy need some time but they quickly learn that this group does things differently. And they adjust to the more easy way of living.

So what can we learn from those baboons?

Well, ‘don’t bite others because you have a bad day’ is my favorite. But also that if a baboon society can change and teach alpha males to go climb a tree – or even better; do some flea picking on good monkeys – so can we.

What can you do? If you are a manager it’s simple. Don’t be a jerk. Because if you are, you’re affecting the health and happiness of the people you are responsible for. If you are a worker who gets bitten every now and then; talk to your colleagues and together find a way to teach your managers it’s time to do things differently. A whole department gibbering like a bunch of baboons might even do the trick.

 Photo by Steve Slater

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