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Preening bosses mimic behaviour of monkeys

Do you know a boss who struts around the office, preening himself and puffing out his chest, showing off a splash of colour – perhaps a red tie? According to a study of male managers, he is behaving like much of the animal kingdom, particularly monkeys and chimpanzees.

Researchers at the University of New South Wales interviewed hundreds of managers and employees, and concluded that in every work environment, bosses – like dominant animals – mark out their territory, assert their authority and display their power. In the same way that monkeys flaunt brightly coloured body parts, or peacocks their plumage, male managers often team a dark suit (denoting gravitas) with a pink shirt or vividly hued tie. In the wild, the aim is to attract a mate. In the office, according to Professor Jeffrey Braithwaite who led the study, it is to assert one's place in the hierarchy.

Professor Braithwaite said yesterday: "From an evolutionary point of view, about 200 species are known to strut and puff out their chests. Homo sapiens evolved over two million years to be tribal and hierarchical, and it's really not much different from other species at the evolutionary, biological level. Perhaps it's imprinted on our genes."

The study, published in Australia's Journal of Health Organisation and Management, says that male bosses in most workplaces, from the advertising and construction industries to the health service, display similar attributes.

To demonstrate their status, they have bigger chairs than everyone else, speak more loudly and interrupt more frequently. They lace their conversation with management jargon and acronyms, in order to confound people. They spend most of the day in meetings, jealously guard their personal space (office with view), and show off their superior gadgetry, including cars and mobile phones.

"What we found was universal animalistic displays of power, masculinity, sexuality and authority that seem to be hard-wired in," said Professor Braithwaite. "This tribal culture is similar to what we would have seen in hunter-gatherer bands on the savannah in southern Africa."

He told The Sydney Morning Herald: "Groups were territorial in the past because it helped them survive. If you weren't in a tight band, you didn't get to pass on your genes. But it is surprising how many ... workers are still very tribal in their behaviour.

"It explains all sorts of undesirable behaviours, including bullying."

The Alpha males of numerous species, particularly chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys and Japanese macaques, assert themselves in similar ways to senior male managers. The study also compares such men with "lekking birds", which congregate during the mating season to defend their turf and put on ostentatious displays to attract females.

The study focused solely on men but Professor Braithwaite said some female managers become "Alpha females" to compete with men, while others adopt "a more team-oriented style".