Thursday, 29 May 2014

My Manager and Other Animals – Richard Robinson ***

It might seem odd to feature what seems like a management book on a science website, but what Richard Robinson cleverly does is to explore the science, particularly the evolutionary psychology, behind workplace behaviour.
Early on, the book identifies three key behaviours – harmony, antagonism and chaos, with harmony illustrated by the lives of ants and also the impact of mirror neurons on our behaviour and those of other animals. Antagonism is given to us with the ape as typifier, while a special type of successful chaos belongs to ants… but a far worse kind is in the hands of MBAs.
We also meet the concepts of evolution, wevolution and mevolution. The first you’ll be familiar with. Wevolution is the adaptive behaviour that gave us science and technology, agriculture and writing. And mevolution is the way we as individuals adapt to specific circumstances – say the office environment. All this is rather cleverly done, weaving in behaviour in the animal world and the workplace to give us some excellent insights into the psychology of working life. And there’s the original concept of the ‘social fractal’ likening the scale independence of social behaviour to the science of fractals.
My only significant criticism up to page 92 is that Robinson does have a tendency to breeze through topics in a way that doesn’t quite give you enough. What this means is that the reader’s obvious questions don’t get answered, as we’ve already wafted on to the next topic. So, for instance, early on we learn how bacteria started to cooperate as a survival mechanism, forming stromatolites – this is true, but I immediately thought, ‘Yes, but what about the vast majority of bacteria that don’t do this – they still survived pretty well’? Later on we hear about a manager who can detect by subtle body tells across the factory floor whether a worker has financial difficulties or has had a domestic. Really? That raises my bullish*t detector. Has anyone tested this ability in controlled conditions, or are we just taking what the manager says as fact? I suspect it’s anecdote rather than data.
If the book had continued this way, this would have been no more than an odd mild irritation. I can’t emphasise enough what an enjoyable and different book this starts out to be, bringing the spotlight of biology, often using comparisons with animal behaviour (hence the title) to bear in a way that gives a real insight into good and bad workplace behaviour. It was solidly heading for four stars, but then suddenly, at page 92, it shifts.
From here on in it’s one of those ‘funny’ management books, giving us a long saga of how an MBA dropped in as a manager will mess things up, and the Peter Principle, and Parkinson’s Law and Murphy’s law and so on. There is the occasional passing reference to the ant and the ape to try to tie it back in to the earlier part, but this second half is a very different book and not as good as the first half. It’s an entirely acceptable ‘why everything goes wrong at work’ type humorous business book, but it loses the interesting science and, frankly, some of the interest overall.
Seen as a whole, this is a good book, worth reading – but it could have been so much better.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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