European Business: Mr. van Veen, one of your books bears the title “Help, mijn baas is een aap! (Help, My Boss is an Ape!)“. In your experience, are there more gorillas or baboons?
Patrick van Veen: More gorillas unfortunately. There are still quite a lot of bosses who pound their chest to underscore their position. Of course, with humans, it’s much more a matter of status symbols: office, parking space, car, secretary and so on are still more important than worrying about leadership skills. If possible, expertise should start playing a bigger role again – like with baboons: The men lead when there’s danger, and the women lead in the search for food. I hope in the future there will be more baboons among managers who will no longer be interested in status symbols, but rather in skills.
I hope in the future there will be more baboons among managers who will no longer be interested in status symbols, but rather in skills. Patrick van Veen
European Business: You have a degree in biology. What was the impetus for you to make a connection to the management of companies with Apemanagement?
Patrick van Veen: Because I hadn’t found a job as a biologist, I changed my plans and began working for an insurance company. There, I also took part in in-house management training, and that’s when it occurred to me how they were all behaving. It was like in the monkey habitat! I then bought a notebook and started observing my coworkers. That is, until a manager asked me what the deal was with this book. So, I explained the whole thing to him, and that was also the end of my career in that company. I decided to bring together my old area of study with my latest experiences.
European Business: How can we picture as the content of the seminars you offer? Is it just a drawn-out visit to the zoo?
Patrick van Veen: First and foremost, the seminars aim to confront the participants with their own behaviour and that of their coworkers. The exact content depends of course on the participants’ questions and the challenges in the company. Sometimes we deal with communication, other times with change management or leadership. We look for the right monkeys and examples for these topics. We almost always start by observing monkeys and apes. In the process, I try to convey to the participants the experience of observing without prejudice, interpretation or reflection. That’s tremendously important because many managers and employees can observe neutrally what behaviour disrupts communication as well as cooperation. But seminars are not just a mirror. They are generally about working together and the insight of how forms of behaviour can have a beneficial or destructive impact.
First and foremost, the seminars aim to confront the participants with their own behaviour and that of their coworkers. Patrick van Veen
European Business: Let’s hazard a thought experiment: In what areas would monkeys or apes perform more successfully as entrepreneurs than we humans?
Patrick van Veen: There’s a popular example for that: According to several studies and research projects, apes and monkeys are in fact better equity traders. But otherwise, I am still positive towards people. Since we have more complex communication, we can also coordinate and plan better. But the social structures that we create in the process entail equally complex problems. Monkeys and apes can usually address this area better. In fact, chimpanzees are often even better at lying and cheating than we humans are. So, if that should be the most important skill within a company, we lose by comparison.
European Business: It’s obvious that you have a special penchant for monkeys and apes. What other animals could managers learn as much from, and why?
Patrick van Veen: From herd animals like wildebeests. Our society and the companies that go with it are by no means well-structured circles where everyone knows everyone else. Unfortunately, great anonymity still dominates in many companies, which leads to us feeling less connected to it. At the same time, ways of behaving are increasingly evading control this way. As herd animals, we can just run after each other without really knowing where we’re going. By studying herd animals, managers can learn how to avoid this pattern of behaviour in their own company.
Interview: Markus Büssecker, Photos: Apemanagement