Middle managers are like monkeys

Middle managers are the ones with the fewest “degrees of freedom”. They have the least space to escape from pressure from their superiors because of the demands from their subordinates. Conflict situations in the work place  can generally be avoided by those at the lowest hierarchical levels and can be unilaterally resolved by those at the highest. But those in the middle have no place to run. It seems to be an inherent characteristic of all human organisations. Which is why conventional wisdom tells us that it is middle managers who are subjected to the highest levels of stress and run the highest risk of stress-related disabilities.

Now a new paper shows that it is an organisational characteristic which can also be observed in the hierarchical structure of troops of monkeys. Monkeys in the middle experience the greatest stress. Perhaps it is in our genes? How we (or monkeys) organise  is a natural consequence of the need to cooperate. And it is probably our genes which have given us the propensity to cooperate.

Katie L. Edwards, Susan L. Walker, Rebecca F. Bodenham, Harald Ritchie, Susanne Shultz. Associations between social behaviour and adrenal activity in female Barbary macaques: Consequences of study designGeneral and Comparative Endocrinology, 2013; 186: 72 DOI: 10.1016/j.ygcen.2013.02.023

From the Manchester University press release:

A study by the universities of Manchester and Liverpool observing monkeys has found that those in the middle hierarchy suffer the most social stress. Their work suggests that the source of this stress is social conflict and may help explain studies in humans that have found that middle managers suffer the most stress at work.

Female Barbary macaques at Trentham Monkey Forest

Female Barbary macaques at Trentham Monkey Forest

Katie Edwards from Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology spent nearly 600 hours watching female Barbary macaques at Trentham Monkey Forest in Staffordshire. Her research involved monitoring a single female over one day, recording all incidences of social behaviour. These included agonistic behaviour like threats, chases and slaps, submissive behaviour like displacing, screaming, grimacing and hind-quarter presentation and affiliative behaviour such as teeth chatter, embracing and grooming. 

The following day faecal samples from the same female were collected and analysed for levels of stress hormones at Chester Zoo’s wildlife endocrinology laboratory.  

Katie explains what she found: “Not unsurprisingly we recorded the highest level of stress hormones on the days following agonistic behaviour. However, we didn’t find a link between  lower stress hormone levels and affiliative behaviour such as grooming.”  

She continues: “Unlike previous studies that follow a group over a period of time and look at average behaviours and hormone levels, this study allowed us to link the observed behaviour of specific monkeys with their individual hormone samples from the period when they were displaying that behaviour.”  

Another key aspect of the research was noting where the observed monkey ranked in the social hierarchy of the group. The researchers found that monkeys from the middle order had the highest recorded levels of stress hormones.  

Dr Susanne Shultz, a Royal Society University Research Fellow in the Faculty of Life Sciences at The University of Manchester oversaw the study: “What we found was that monkeys in the middle of the hierarchy are involved with conflict from those below them as well as from above, whereas those in the bottom of the hierarchy distance themselves from conflict. The middle ranking macaques are more likely to challenge, and be challenged by, those higher on the social ladder.”  

Katie says the results could also be applied to human behaviour: “It’s possible to apply these findings to other social species too, including human hierarchies. People working in middle management might have higher levels of stress hormones compared to their boss at the top or the workers they manage. These ambitious mid-ranking people may want to access the higher-ranking lifestyle which could mean facing more challenges, whilst also having to maintain their authority over lower-ranking workers.”   

The research findings have been published in the journal General and Comparative Endocrinology.   

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One Response to “Middle managers are like monkeys”

  1. Peter Prevos Says:

    Knowing that middle management stress is a natural phenomena and observed in primate behaviour does not mean that we should simply accept it as a fact of life.

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