Monkey business: Tips for the lunar new year


As the Chinese lunar calendar turns to the Year of the Monkey, NUS associate professors Sarah Cheah and Ang Swee Hoon look for some tips for business leaders from the world of primates.

In Chinese astrology the 12 animals of the zodiac correspond to a broad range of personality types – each with their own strengths and potential pitfalls in corporate life. Every animal of the Chinese zodiac is influenced by one of five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal or water. This year is a fire monkey year – said to bring increased challenges that promise both danger but also rich rewards for those versatile and quick-witted enough to handle them.

So what can we learn from our closest animal relatives? Let’s call it a case of monkey see, monkey do.

Change needs creativity and patience

Many species of monkeys have been observed by primatologists to use tools in the wild to solve problems such as reaching for fruits at difficult spots. Chimpanzees and orang utans, in particular, not only use them, but habitually manufacture new tools for creative problem solving. However, their higher level of cognitive abilities also means that they have a tendency to become easily bored.

What can we learn from monkeys’ creativity and susceptibility to boredom?

With recent economic developments, change seems to be the new norm. Here, we take a leaf from the primates’ ability to embrace changes positively and their creativity to successfully drive change for business management. After all, the capacity to accept change and be creative is the root for innovation.

But while businesses prepare for and accept change, we should also be mindful that focus, concentration and, above all, patience are necessary for success. Perseverance on completing a task, even when all seems lost, helps to groom leadership and responsibility.

Uncertainty demands agility and resourcefulness

squirrelmonkeysMonkeys are nimble and swift movers. Studies by biologist Dorothy Cheney and psychologist Robert Seyfarth using pre-recorded alarm calls have shown that vervets, small black-faced monkeys, are capable of making different responses depending on the nature of threats.

When they hear a leopard approaching, the vervets will dash to the woods by swinging from tree to tree at high speeds. At the hint of an eagle’s presence, they will head for the bushes and stay away from the grass at the sound of snakes.

Businesses can learn from such traits. Agility and resourcefulness are valuable skills especially in today’s volatile markets. Rich rewards await those versatile and quick-witted enough to handle uncertainty and capitalise on opportunities.

However, the ability to quickly shift positions needs to be balanced with careful, strategic thinking. Short-term gains might seem alluring but are they best in the longer term? It is always important to ask what future opportunities do you miss by choosing one path over another.

Balance self-confidence with advice from others

In the animal kingdom, uncertainty is normal. Making sense of ambiguous information is critical for survival. Does a certain gesture signal fear or aggression? Does it mean confidence or uncertainty? Research shows that chimpanzees have the ability to monitor their own uncertainty and are aware of what they do not know and what others may know.

Monkeys can also be confident, bold and even fearless animals, leaping long distances from treetop to treetop for example. They are also known to be curious creatures, eager to investigate new objects or environments and improvising tools to do so.

In management, being bold and fearless figure well for creative entrepreneurs looking to break conventions. Bold personalities who have confidence in their business ideas are essential to getting a new venture off the ground. Having a curious or inquisitive streak will also help businesses set new trends or push boundaries.

But there is a very fine line between self-confidence and over-confidence. For instance, it’s great to believe passionately in your product, but always temper exuberance with the experience and intelligence of others – including customers – by heeding their advice on how to improve your product.

Building ties to rally a team

Monkeys are social animals, living in groups with a clearly defined hierarchy. Dominance in the group depends not only on aggression and physical strength but also on forming bonds and coalition, and building loyalties. They spend much time grooming each other to build the bond.

Likewise, in times of uncertainty and change, having the ability to communicate a strategy or vision and rally employees around it is a valuable asset to team building. Like monkeys who spend time grooming each other, leaders can build a cohesive team by understanding their subordinates’ needs and helping each other through rough times.

In business as well it is important to know how to press the right buttons to win people over – leaders, after all, depend on the backing of their team. Yet here too there are limits. Persuasive and overly charming leaders can become so convinced of their own rhetoric that they downplay or ignore potential downsides, creating problems further down the road.

Impress by delivering results

In Chinese mythology monkeys are traditionally seen to love being the centre of attention. They can become stubborn and irritable if they don’t get their way – all traits that have also been observed in monkeys in the wild.

In business, having the charisma to impress others can certainly make a successful leader. But stubborn individuals can also destroy effective teamwork.

That said, stubborn personalities and irritability can be tolerated if the results are truly game-changing. Take Steve Jobs, for example – the late Apple boss was renowned for being demanding, difficult to work with and short-tempered. Yet his leadership produced some remarkable innovations and near universal admiration from those he worked with.

The true test of a leader’s mettle is whether the individual can deliver the results. Otherwise, he or she is just a hollow charmer, with little or nothing in the way of concrete results.

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