Chumps or chimps: Monkeys in the middle of management

Does your boss remind you of an ape?

Snorting around, grunting orders, lurching through the office with his knuckles dragging the ground? Beating his chest and growling every five minutes just to prove to all the other primates that he's Chief Chimp in Charge?

Turns out, gorilla bosses have more in common with their grub-eating counterparts than we ever thought. And it's more than just a hairy back.

Neurobiology research reveals there are significant parallels between the brain activity of workplace bullies and that of chest-thumping gorillas.

The cerebral, "thinking" part of the human brain has evolved into a sophisticated mechanism that operates on multiple dimensions. But science has shown that our big modern brains actually grew over a more primitive limbic brain, an instinct-driven, survivalist-oriented system that closely resembles that of an ape.

So, while your boss may display a thin veneer of humanity for higher-ups and customers, buried beneath his (or her) fancy car, cushy office and endless PowerPoint presentations is the mind of monkey.

And it's the monkey mind that takes over in times of stress or when there's no fear of reprisal.

"The need to dominate, intimidate and oppress has its basis in an innate instinctual primitive need," suggests business owner and psychology writer David Weiner, author of "Power Freaks: Dealing With Them in the Workplace or Anyplace" (2002).

That explains why your manager thinks banging on the glass and grunting at you is appropriate behavior for the workplace. And why if all the other big silverbacks get transferred to cushy jobs back at the home office in Dayton, your boss charges around the office, throwing branches and rocks at all the underlings in a futile attempt to defend his dominance.

Weiner explains how ape-like behaviors manifest in the workplace.

"The primitive brain mechanism drives us into creating hierarchies (promotions, executive perks, bonus and salary ladders) and defending our territory (corner office, best parking spot, taking credit for the success of a group-generated project), two of behaviors essential for primitive organization and survival," he writes.

As a species that shares 98.5 percent of its DNA with chimps, it should be no surprise that the modern workplace - with its cubicles and organization trees - is merely a fancied-up version of "Planet of the Apes."

And because the limbic brain instinctively connects status to survival, ambitious primates often will do anything to maintain control of the tire swing.

According to Weiner, "Tension to move up the ranks or defend one's position exists innately within our

instinctual-emotional minds and is activated when we sense an opportunity for advancement or we receive a challenge from someone attempting to displace us."

As a former Fortune 500 flunky myself, I've spent a little time observing the monkey-see-monkey-do dance called corporate America - and I can promise you that in the race to become top banana, the inner chimp often takes over and all the other monkeys get shoved down the vine.

According to Weiner and other scientists, the neurotransmitter serotonin is usually to blame.

"When tested, the people you suspect (CEOs, sports stars and overly ambitious middle managers) have richer level of serotonin levels than everyone else. And once your level goes up your outlook is permanently skewed," Weiner says.

Weiner, also the author of "Conquering your Inner Dummy" and "Reality Check: What Your Mind Knows but Isn't Telling You," says the link between serotonin and social dominance is why some primates stay on top while others are doomed to the back of the cage forever.

Testosterone also plays a role. Winning the big game, snagging the big account or being voted Grand Pooba of the lodge boosts testosterone. But while the winners are jumping around, beating their chests and chattering on about how great they are, scientists can track negative changes in the neurons of a higher animal after a "social defeat."

Those on top often believe it's their God-given right to be there and that the lesser apes only exist to peel their fruit.

Lest you think power-freak behavior is limited to men, remember the famous Queen of Mean, Leona Helmsley, who notoriously belittled employees and whose outrageous power trip ultimately landed her in jail.

Weiner says the results of the limbic power quiz on his Web site (www.BrainTricks.com) indicate women are just as likely to be power freaks as men. So while the president of the PTA may have better hair than Donald Trump, she may be just as capable of gleefully ordering lesser monkeys to fetch her bananas.

Next time your boss starts going ape, just smile and imagine you're watching "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom." Now put on your monkey suit and get to work.

Snellville resident Lisa Earle McLeod is nationally recognized speaker and the author of "Forget Perfect: Finding Joy, Meaning, and Satisfaction in the Life You've Already Got and the YOU You Already Are." She has been seen on "Good Morning America" and featured in Lifetime, Glamour and The New York Times. Contact her at www.ForgetPerfect.com.