Chimp in a 3 piece suit? When managers are like monkeys

If you find your staff hiding in the tea room next time you give out promotions to middle management positions, you will now know why. Researchers who spent 600 hours observing a bunch of monkeys found those in the middle of the hierarchy are the most stressed and say their findings may help explain why workers in middle management were often the most stressed as well.

The study, led by Katie Edwards from Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology, observed and recorded the monkeys’ social behaviour from antagonistic actions like threats to submissive behaviour including displacing and screaming. Researchers at Manchester and Liverpool universities spent 600 hours observing female Barbary macaques and found the animals in the middle suffered conflict from both above and below.

Samples were collected from the animals the following day and their stress hormones were recorded which confirmed monkeys from the middle order had the highest levels.

Dr Susanne Shultz, a Royal Society University Research Fellow in the Faculty of Life Sciences at The University of Manchester who oversaw the study, said monkeys in the bottom of the hierarchy tended to distance themselves from conflict while those in the middle were more likely to challenge, and be challenged.

Ms Edwards added the link could be applied to human behaviour. “People working in middle management might have higher levels of stress hormones compared to their boss at the top or the workers they manage,” she said. “These ambitious mid-ranking people may want to access the higher-ranking lifestyle which could mean facing more challenges, whilst also having to maintain their authority over lower-ranking workers.”

Many employees are aware of the pitfalls of middle management, observing the effect that downsizing and subsequent increased workloads in some companies can have on managers who are expected to also be performance managers and coaches for their own staff.

A 2009 study by global temporary staffing company Randstad found that half of employees surveyed did not want to move into management roles. Randstad went on to predict a looming shortage of managers in light of this disinclination to take on manager jobs.

One consultant reports that, in one of his client organisations, more than one third of engineers promoted to management jobs went back to their old roles in less than six months. Why? “Because [software] code does what you tell it to do the first time and you don’t have to ask how the kids are.”


iHR Australia believes that, in an effective and productive workplace, managers need to understand and respond to their employees’ drivers, motivations and performance. iHR Australia specialises in workplace assessments and inquiries that can help you take the pulse of your business and identify issues within teams.

It is also crucial for senior leaders to keep an eye on their middle managers as, like everyone in the organisation, they are at risk of workplace stress which is not only a health and safety issue in itself, but can contribute to further issues within their teams.

The New and Emerging Managers training provided by iHR Australia can provide new managers with the skills to help them transition into their new role and improve their confidence, thus reducing stress.