The two staff members at my small company are typically insubordinate.
Most days they keep their noses down, but their squabbles and power plays can be a distraction at the office. They communicate status constantly—and never with words.
My staffers—Ollie and Juno—are beagles. I’m not a professional rabbit hunter or neighbor annoyer. I’m a freelance writer, and my two hounds stand in for human colleagues at my home office. The more time I spend with dogs—away from other humans—the more my little pack reminds me of the human workplace.
Don’t get me wrong. The offices I visit are civilized and professional. The humans there communicate subtly, politely and discreetly. Through nods and glances and conference room seating choices, people clue each other in on hierarchies, territories and roles. These behaviors are often automatic—and a lot like what animals do to get along.
That’s one thing I learned from Dutch biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal’s “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves,” a New York Times Best Seller and Amazon Best Science Book of 2019. De Waal explores animals’ capacity for empathy, shame and other emotions. He also reminds us of the deep continuity between animals’ emotions and our own. Our emotions are part of our animal selves, de Waal says, and they’ve evolved along with us, helping us adapt to power dynamics and social hierarchies. In fact, they’re so much a part of everything we do, it’s impossible to “keep feelings out of it”—even at work.
I wish I’d been more aware of that back when I spent every day in a human office. I allowed myself to become so busy, I didn’t pay enough attention to others’ feelings and consequential behaviors—or my own. De Waal’s perspective is a wonderful reminder to simply slow down and observe. Here are six insights from his book.
1. Emotions and feelings are two different things.
Emotions are automatic. They’re naturally selected. They’re also often visible, de Waal says. For example, a verbal jab from a superior may make you blush. “Feelings arise when emotions penetrate our consciousness, and we become aware of them,” de Waal says. Most of the time, our feelings remain unknown to others. The reverse is also true: Others may be emotionally affected by you and your “vibe,” but they may not be aware of your true feelings.
At work: Don’t rely on your ability to “read others’ emotions.” You could be wrong. Instead, ask people how (and what) they’re feeling. Their answers may surprise you. For example, you might think a direct report is upset about someone you hired, but she may just be feeling insecure about her own position. Conversely, don’t expect your team to correctly interpret your own feelings. Share them.
2. Emotions and intelligence go together.
We can’t make emotions go away, but we aren’t slaves to them, either. Even animals’ emotions pass through what de Waal calls an “appraisal filter.” Instincts are knee-jerk reactions, he says, but emotions are much more adaptable. They affect our behavior, but only after careful evaluation of a situation. “Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding about emotions is that they are the opposite of cognition,” de Waal explains. In other words, emotions and intelligence are not opposing forces. They work together.
At work: Though we try to keep emotions in check, they’re always at work, driving our decisions and actions. If you witness a colleague’s outburst, consider asking him what’s behind it rather than suggesting he “keep emotions out of it.” Clearing the air could also clear space for a more productive work environment.
3. Emotions are complicated—and contagious.
De Waal notes that neither apes nor humans have much control of how emotions play across our faces. “We may change expressions on command, but it’s hard to control what comes up involuntarily,” he says. Even the smile is a complex expression. DeWaal devotes an entire chapter of “Mama’s Last Hug” to the laugh and the smile, which can convey nervousness, a need to please, reassurance, welcome, submission. Emotions are contagious, too. From birth, a baby cries when it hears another baby crying. Animals, apparently without knowing why, are drawn to others of their species in distress.
At work: Have you ever noticed the frenetic energy at the office when you return to work after a vacation? All those people! Work environments, especially open-concept spaces, subject humans to each other’s moods and emotional energy. We nod and smile as we enter our colleagues’ territories and sort out pecking orders. All that interaction can be distracting. For highly empathic people, it can be exhausting. Add it to the list of good reasons to support flexible working arrangements that give people time away from each other and the fray.
4. Trust can be used for good or evil.
Animals develop trust relationships just as humans do. De Waal writes about elephants who hold each other’s sensitive trunks in their mouths to reinforce trust. With trust comes protection. Trust also gives a dominant elephant the opportunity to filch her companion’s food. “To grasp another’s impairment also gives you ways to exploit it,” deWall says. Trust is a deep component of our humanity, too, and understanding its nuances—how it’s earned and eroded—can have a dramatic impact on your life.
At work: Business writer Stephen M. R. Covey has built a career showing people how building trust intentionally can make them more efficient and successful at work. Being open and transparent with your team is a good place to start (see No. 1).
5. Fairness matters.
In experiments with capuchin monkeys, de Waal discovered that the animals had a strong sense of fairness. In his study, all the monkeys were happy with cucumbers as a reward—until some monkeys got grapes instead. The monkeys with cucumbers “went on strike.” Their reaction was natural, de Waal says. “Being resentful about another’s success may seem petty, but in the long run it keeps one from getting duped.” Our sense of fairness is hard-wired. Being fair keeps cooperation flowing and retains everyone on the team. But an absence of fairness shakes us to the core.
At work: If someone on your team receives a promotion or a raise, it’s only natural that those who don’t will react. Consider talking about the change in one-on-ones with team members so they have a forum to share their feelings—and you have a chance to share context.
6. Power is always part of it.
De Waal writes about groups of primates in constant power struggles. The quest for power and position can drive animals to do horrific things. Apes are capable of violence, mauling and even murder. De Waal tells the story of a coalition of chimpanzees who literally rip an upstart to pieces. Humans are capable of similar behavior, de Waal says. If you’ve never read Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, you probably should.
Yet not all societies are ruled by fear. DeWall shares stories about alphas in primate groups who, instead of acting as bullies, are the first to comfort others in distress. These leaders often reach the top by protecting the underdog, keeping the peace and reassuring those who are distressed.
At work: Be aware of power in the workplace, and bear in mind that, even in the wild, strong leaders show empathy and compassion.
These ideas seem obvious once you call them out. We all know that emotions can be messy, power struggles are ugly, trust is hard to win and easily abused. Yet we’re often so distracted we can’t see these forces at work. Or we may aspire to a greater good—the idea that humans are above such behavior. In some ways we are. In other ways we aren’t.
We all have something to gain by understanding what drives human emotions and behavior—our own and others’. Being aware of the animal-level forces at play in the workplace requires that we, like deWaal, take time to step back, observe and contemplate what we see.