Going ape in the office

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The Independent Online
Ever wondered why all that stress you are under makes you feel so worn out? It is not just the long hours that go hand in hand with it. It also, according to Gary Johnson, has a lot to do with the adrenalin we release while dealing with stress.

Mr Johnson perhaps has more reason to know about these things than most management writers. As well as being director of marketing at British Biotech and holding a master's degree in management from London Business School, he has a first degree in medical science.

Combining the two disciplines, he has written a book, Monkey Business. The aim is to convince us that we behave in the ways we do because we are prisoners of our genes. More particularly, we still bear most of the trademarks of the cavemen we were 10,000 years ago - "a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms".

What this means for stress is that the constant boosts of adrenalin we subconsciously give ourselves cloud our judgement and prevent us from working effectively. "Adrenalin is the fight or flight hormone," says Mr Johnson, and our distant ancestors benefited from it when their stressful situations typically amounted to physical threats or opportunities: "a sabre-toothed tiger approaching, the proximity of game which might be caught".

In this context, the properties of adrenalin - increasing heart and breathing rates to provide the muscles with the extra oxygen required, creating anxiety and causing the brain to focus on one thing - worked fine because they dealt with a sudden, short-term emergency. The problem with the current business environment is that stress is constant and not physical. The factors behind it need to be handled by detailed analysis and careful consideration of the options rather than a quick fix.

"Adrenalin was never meant to be produced day in, day out for months on end, and when it is, as a result of prolonged stress in business, the results can be appalling," writes Mr Johnson. "It's hard to find a symptom that such stress cannot cause."

The answers, he says, are to avoid short-termism by taking a balanced view of the company's short- and long-term needs; not to wait for a crisis before taking action; not to let the fear of failure stifle the organisation; to ensure that some people are allowed to think in a relaxed and innovative way, and not to believe that reactive management techniques, such as benchmarking and downsizing, are enough for long-term survival.

But stress is not the only area where Mr Johnson feels that a huge body of scientific evidencecan make a contribution to our understanding. Some of his insights are not exactly new or fresh. But others do go some way to satisfying his claim that the volume is an "aha book", in that readers will say: "Aha, so that's why people ... "

His chapter on hierarchies develops the caveman theories about the place dominant and subordinate types hold within organisations. "We have an urge to be dominant because while we were evolving (and to a large extent today) being dominant meant more of the good things in life: more resources and more mates," Mr Johnson writes.

He says our ancestors became dominant mainly through being big and strong - a trait that continues today in the tendency for tall people to secure better jobs. But he adds that some people who are unable to be dominant happily accept being submissive - which can have terrible consequences when people merely obey orders.

His advice is to not assume that your boss is there because he or she is competent. Accordingly, you must fight the "overwhelming urge to comply with an idea just because all your colleagues do". And, if you are in a position of power, to combine dominance with warmth.

Likewise, the more we co-operate - and modern business conditions make ability in this area all the more important - the greater the opportunity for deceit. The ability to deceive effectively has become so important that we do not know we are doing it, he maintains. Moreover, the derivative of this - self-deceit - can be seen all the time in business, adds Mr Johnson, pointing out how good results are "achieved" while poor ones are "experienced" in the face of "adverse conditions".

'Monkey Business' is published by Gower, pounds 25.