A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
July 30th, 2012 by William

Games Primates Play – Flatland Revisited

In my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, I use Edwin Abbott’s 1884 book Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions, as an analogy to drive home the problem with the deeply vertical organizational structure that is the mainstay of modern business. I make the case for flatter organizational structures as a way to reduce conflict and eliminate the games played by individuals as they jockey for position in the hierarchy. As a follow-up to that concept, I offer new evidence of the fact that flat organizational structures lead to more harmonious workplaces.

In his book, Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships, Dario Maestripieri details the different dominance hierarchies that exist in the primate world. His book reveals how we can learn much about the workings of human society by observing how primates interact especially in regard to how they exert dominance over each other. Most primate societies are what are called linear dominance hierarchies in which there is a single individual at the top who’s dominant over all, and all others serve as subordinate. In this structure, like the workplace, the individuals are ranked from top to bottom by their dominance standing.

As a side note; in action the primate organizational structure mirrors modern business structure exactly. The head of the pack; primate A is dominate over all other primates in the pack despite a clear pecking order in the group. And just like in the modern workplace, these top primates can and will exert their dominance over any other primate regardless of how low they are in the pecking order. That means they have no qualms about going over the head of the primate in second, or third, etc. place in the pecking order to regularly show dominance over lower members of the pack.

These type organizational structures are called “despotic” hierarchies. Maestripieri explains, “In a highly despotic system, the ladder is set straight up and there are large gaps between the steps. This means that there are significant differences in power between top-ranking and bottom-ranking individuals, individuals don’t treat those lower than themselves very nicely, and climbing the ladder is difficult.” Primate packs can be ranked by the severity of their despotic tendencies. He further explains; “In a low-despotic system, by contrast, the ladder is set on a gentle slope and the steps are close to each other, or maybe the ladder is even flat on the ground. When there is no dominance ladder, it means that the social system is egalitarian: either all individuals have equal chances of winning fights or they don’t fight much to begin with.”

The “high-despotic” primate hierarchy mirrors the typical organization structure in business. Most are highly stratified, with rank being the prime motivator in everyday interaction of the inhabitants. However, Maestripieri points out that when this type hierarchy is relaxed to a “low-despotic’ hierarchy the result is a structure with less inherent conflict, or fighting for position. The take away here is that even in the primate world there’s proof that a flat organizational hierarchy leads to a more equitable and smoother running organization. Maybe business can learn a few lessons about organizational structure from our primate cousins.


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