I got an email last night from a former student (thanks Hendrick!) who wanted to let me know that Stanford's Robert Sapolsky had done a WNYC radio show called "New Normal?" (listen here) where he described his 2004 article with Lisa Share on a troop of baboons -- which became more peaceful (or at least less nasty) after the alpha males died. It is amazing stuff, and more evidence that being a jerk and having power go hand in hand. Here is a link to the original academic article (which I was able to download for free). It is short and quite accessible, and just astounding stuff: Here is how I described it in The No Asshole Rule:
But when the top ranking
males died-off in the mid-1980s, aggression by the (new) top baboons dropped dramatically,
with most aggression occurring between baboons of similar rank, and little of
it directed toward lower-status males, and none at all directed at females.
Troop members also spent a larger percentage of the time grooming, sat closer
together than in the past, and hormone samples indicated that the lowest status
males experienced less stress than underlings in other baboon troops. Most
interestingly, these effects persisted at least through the late 1990’s, well
after all the original “kinder” males had died-off. Not only that, when adolescent males who grew
up in other troops joined the “Garbage Dump Troop,” they too engaged in less
aggressive behavior than in other baboon troops. As Sapolsky put it “We don’t understand the
mechanism of transmission… but the jerky new guys are obviously learning: We
don’t do things like that around here.”
So, at least by baboon standards, the garbage dump troop developed and
enforced what I would call a “no asshole rule.”
I am not suggesting that you get rid of all the alpha males in your organization, as tempting as that may be at times. The lesson from the baboons is that when the social distance between higher and lower status mammals in a group are reduced, and steps are taken to keep the distance smaller, higher status members are less likely to act like jerks. Human leaders can use this lesson to avoid turning into mean, selfish, and insensitive jerks too. Despite all the trappings, some leaders do remain attuned to how people around them are really feeling, to what their employees really believe about how the organization is ran, and to what customers really think about their company’s products and services. As “The Garbage Dump Troop” teaches us, the key thing these leaders do is to take potent, and constant, steps that dampen rather amplify the power differences between themselves and others (both inside and outside the company).
Any reactions? What do you think the implications for implementing the no asshole rule?
P.S. I seem to have a bit of an obsession with power dynamics in baboon troops, you may recall this post called Of Baboons and Bosses, on how lower status troop members glance at the alpha male every 20 or 30 seconds.