Anthropology Culture

Bonobos in the Boardroom

Written by Paula Gray

Yes, we walk bipedally, we think in abstract terms and we can do integral calculus, but just maybe we might have something to learn from our primate cousins, the Bonobo.  Bonobos (Pan paniscus), also called pygmy or gracile chimpanzees share more than 98% of the same genetic material (DNA) with humans.

Frans De Waal asserts in his book Our Inner Ape (De Waal 2005) that Bonobos represent humankind’s noblest qualities;  kindness, generosity and altruism.  He contrasts Bonobos who are gentle, loving and, how shall we state this, rather friendly with the more aggressive, territorial Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes).  Where Bonobos are considered mellow, Chimpanzees can have contests for male dominance that are so forceful and frequent that males have been described as having demonic streaks (Goodall, 1986; Wrangham and Peterson, 1996).

De Waal further explains how chimpanzees and Bonobos exhibit marked differences in social behavior.  He notes that when studying animal behavior, students are accustomed to ranking individuals from low to high based on their level of dominance within the group.  This task comes easily when studying male Chimpanzees and Baboons or the females of many of the Old World monkey species.  (Side note: the idea of social rankings was discovered in the 1920s in domestic fowl when the direction of attacks among hens was studied – this is where the term pecking order comes from).

In addition to the resulting dominance that arises from conflict, many species exhibit status displays that function similarly to a military uniform that clearly signals an individual’s rank.  A dominant male Chimpanzee will make himself look bigger by raising his hair and standing straight upright and the lower ranking subordinate male will grovel about in the dust uttering pants and grunts.  What makes Bonobos unique is their lack of these structured rituals of dominance and subordination.  This offers insight into how unimportant status and rank must be in their society.

I know many reading this may find these displays of dominance vaguely familiar.  Who hasn’t seen some of these contests for dominance within teams?  Though we know this dominance structure exists, could teams evolve to lose it?  Could we learn from the Bonobo and drop the struggle to be dominant?  How would that change the way we get things done? If there were less energy and focus on who holds the power, could we focus more on what needs to be accomplished?

The struggle for dominance, status and rank within a team wastes precious time and can be counterproductive.  Though a dominant individual may appear relaxed when their status is secure, they may also resort to aggressive behavior when challenged.  This may turn into outright bullying of less dominant individuals and those individuals may lose their voice in the team.

As a team leader, it is important to temper the dominant behavior of team members to allow input and participation from the entire group.  Your sharpest team member may very well be your quietest.

“Of the millions of pages written over the centuries about human nature, none are as bleak as those of the last three decades – and none as wrong”

Frans De Waal
Biologist, Ethologist

Paula Gray
the anthropologist

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About the author

Paula Gray

Paula Gray is an anthropologist and the Director of Research and Knowledge Development at AIPMM. She has traveled the globe to work with companies throughout the US, Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific to help them gain a deeper understanding of their customers. She is featured in Linda Gorchels' book The Product Manager's Handbook and has contributed to several books on product management including The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK). She is also the author of numerous blog posts and papers including Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Managers.