Chimpanzee Politics

[This article originally appeared in the Hardwired Humans Newsletter.]

by Andrew O’Keeffe

Gillard versus Rudd in Australia. Romney versus Santorum in the US. Figan versus Goblin in the forests of Gombe. Power contests for progression in the hierarchy are a natural dynamic of social species. While organisation politics might be more subtle, there are important lessons for leaders in understanding and using power.

The similarity between chimp politics and our own are uncanny. From the observations of Dr. Jane Goodall in the forests of Gombe, Tanzania we know:

•Leadership of chimps is won and lost by displays of dominance and submission. Sometimes this is by physical injury, but more often it is by sheer force of will power. For example, in 1971 Figan took over from Humphrey by gradually wearing Humphrey down. Figan only challenged Humphrey when Figan’’s brother was with him. Dr. Goodall says, “Gradually, like a war of nerves, the brothers wore Humphrey down.”

Constructive chimp leaders retain their role for around 10 years. The tyrants last for only about two years. Figan was a constructive leader. Dr. Goodall says he used power well to ensure social harmony. “He was so clearly dominant over them that…he had no need for violent demonstrations of strength and mastery.” Likewise, individual chimps wouldn’’t behave aggressively to others as it was clear that if they did so they would cop Figan’’s wrath. So everyone got on pretty well.

Self-interested ambition and personality plays a major part. Figan was knifed in the back by his protégé. Goblin was a young aspirant when Figan was in his prime. The young upstart benefited from Figan’’s patronage, the alpha signalling to others that Goblin had his support and that others should leave Goblin alone. Goblin thus rose through the ranks, dominating each male in turn. “Eventually,” Dr. Goodall tells the story, “the inevitable happened. Finally, there was only one male left and Goblin turned on Figan.”

When there is no clear alpha, chimp groups are in chaos. For about a year, Figan and Goblin battled it out. During that year the group was chaotic (when there is a leadership vacuum the other males take the opportunity to try to improve their position in the ranking). Finally, Goblin wounded Figan and took over. Dr. Goodall tells me, “Goblin seemed to wear the others down, and in the end it was as though they said to each other, ‘”Oh, let’’s just give it to him”.’”

What happens to displaced alphas? It depends on their personality. Some take it hard and become “the shadow of their former selves.” Some concede to their rival and then become an ally of the new leader. Others retreat to the “backbench” and then later might make another run for the top job!

Big P Politics

The last two years in Australian politics could be straight out of the chimpanzee field-guide. For readers outside of Australia, in November 2007 Kevin Rudd led his party to electoral victory and became prime minister. By June 2010 he had lost the support of his colleagues and in a midnight move installed Julia Gillard as their leader and prime minister. Now a few weeks ago, Kevin Rudd challenged to try to regain the leadership role. But he was spectacularly unsuccessful. Despite the polls suggesting he has a better chance of re-election than Gillard, the vast majority of his colleagues, particularly those in cabinet who worked with him closest, did not want to repeat the experience of having him as their leader. They talk about him as treating them with contempt, of being a control freak, being dysfunctional and having a seething temper. They did not want the tyrant back. He goes to the backbench, but that of course doesn’’t mean that he won’’t lick his wounds, try to gather support and make a further attempt.

In the US, while the intra-party nomination is more orderly, the contest promotes rivals displaying and denigrating each other. But when the intra-clan warfare is concluded the party unites around the successful candidate.

Tips for Leaders

Using power well is a key attribute for effective leadership. From the pattern of power dynamics for social species there are a number of lessons for organisational leaders.

1. Be secure. As leader you need the support and confidence of your boss. To exercise power you need to be on secure grounds. There will likely be times when you will make decisions that are contentious and that might be challenged by direct reports. You need to know that you have the confidence of your boss. If not, your ability to exercise power is compromised.
2. Distribute power evenly. Power should be equally distributed across your direct reports so that no one direct report has significantly more power and responsibility than their peers. A strong direct report diminishes your power, is a potential rival to you as well as a dominant amongst their peers which diminishes team harmony.
3. Avoid favourites. Don’’t have or show favouritism amongst your direct reports. Favouritism by the leader drives factions in the group. The team breaks into in-groups and out-groups; those not in the inner circle attach themselves to each other as an out-group.
4. Be inclusive. When you become the leader the tendency might be to remove people who were part of a rival camp (such as close followers of your predecessor). Best to contain any natural urge you might have in this regard. First, people often rapidly accommodate the transition of power (and might be ready to accept your leadership) and second, it’s best to integrate rather than alienate people into rival camps. Of course if there is a persistent opponent to your leadership then this needs to be addressed and often that person needs to leave.
5. Exercise power well. There are leadership traps in either over-using or under-using power. Both drive dysfunction. Be appropriately powerful without being intimidating. Set standards, communicate those standards and be prepared to address any deviation from standards.
6. Groom. Leaders need to invest in developing harmonious relationships, alliances and loyalty. We humans groom in the form of social chit-chat. We don’’t groom by talking about KPIs, project plans and spreadsheets. We need to spend time with people in relaxed social discourse.

One leader who refused to groom was the chimp alpha, Frodo. Jane Goodall says that while Frodo soaked up the grooming by others he rarely reciprocated by grooming them. We might say he was a self-centred egomaniac. This lack of investment in others compromises a leader when an ambitious rival appears on the scene (or when business results turn down…or for politicians when polls head south).

Andrew O’Keeffe is the author of Hardwired Humans and The Boss. He is an associate of three of Australia’s leading business schools. Andrew’s background is in senior HR roles with IBM, Cable & Wireless Optus, SKM and Hewitt Associates. He studied Economics and Industrial Relations at The University of Sydney and started his career in industrial relations in the mining and manufacturing industries. In 2011, as he did in 2008, Andrew joined with the chimpanzee expert Dr Jane Goodall when she was in Australia to speak to business audiences about the implications of our social instincts for leadership of organisations. Andrew edits the Hardwired Humans Newsletter.

– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.

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