Richard Robinson

My Manager and Other Animals

Science shows that animals are more like us than we ever thought, and we are more like animals than we would ever like to think. This is a book about what we can learn from animals – all animals, but two in particular: the ape and the ant. Apes we knew about, but… ants? Yes, indeed; we need to understand our inner ant.

Each of the topics below fascinated me while I researched the book. Some of them have a life of their own. I have condensed them into talks and presented them to audiences to find if they fascinate others as well as me, which they do, and I think you would like them too. Each segment is quite short, so a full talk is compiled by linking several together.


The Social Fractal

Life around us seems to be such a chaotic mess, yet civilization on the whole seems so wonderful. How-come? We use two strategies: one is aggressive, competitive and selfish (typified in the ape), the other is harmonious, cooperative and altruistic (like the ant). We have both inside us – an inner ape and an inner ant – working in ‘antagonistic harmony’. The result is a ‘social fractal’, similar to fractals in the natural world, in which simple laws produce complex results.

The History of Harmony

Harmonizing dates back to the beginning of life on Earth, when bacteria learned that sticking together was a good idea. They did it rather literally, using a polysaccharide glue to form colonies. Later creatures such as ants and humans did it with exotic psychological and cultural ‘glues’. Scientists study the inbuilt engines of harmony – mirror neurons, body language and pheromones – and how they help us to blend into the surrounding culture.


Things move too fast to be explained by genetic evolution, which takes millions of years. Our cultural life evolves very rapidly, over centuries in the case of countries, or a few years in the case of a company. Each community, country and company creates its own character through cultural evolution, or ‘WEvolution’. For you and me it only takes days to adapt to the egology of our workplace; that’s ’MEvolution’.

The Ways of Animals

Animal researchers can tell us a thing or two about the customs of the workplace: We have all heard about how selfish, like apes, we are. That’s just the start. What about altruism (a lesson from elephants); dealing with freeloaders (learn from bacteria); fairness (and the capuchin monkey); decision making (by bees); communicating (sparrows know how); meetings (the way of the ant); gift-giving (spider-style); displays (peacocks take the lead); mission statements (ants do them too)…

The Art of Self Deference

If you are not careful you can be crushed by those around you. If you give in – become too nice for words – you are not doing yourself or your workmates or your company any favours. The culture in your workplace can become immoral or even illegal if nobody questions it. But challenging the status quo can lead to rejection and isolation as a ‘whistle-blower’.

Ape Manager

Having looked at extreme ant, we study extreme ape. MBA courses are inclined to turn out the more malign form of manager. Here is a case history of an uncontrolled ape-manager running a company into the ground.

The Survival of the Fitments

When the going gets tough the kit starts breaking. Murphy’s Laws dictate that when you are at your most vulnerable the lift will stick on the wrong floor, the traffic lights will change to red as you reach them, your computer will crash as you reach for the save button, your queue will be the slowest, your toast will land butter-side down… What is the science behind Murphy’s Laws? Ask me. I am a certificated Murphy’s lawyer.

Parkinson’s Law and the Peter Principle

Two iconic works of the 1970s revisited: One of the landmarks of the modern world is the long, steep hierarchy. ‘The Peter Principle’ says that in a hierarchy everyone rises to their level of incompetence. ‘Parkinson’s Law’ introduces that toxic blend of incompetence and jealousy, ‘Injelitence’, which ensures that corruption pervades the hierarchy from top to bottom.


Why is life so much more fulfilling when there’s a catastrophe on? Is this the love that dare not speak its name? The slight twitch of delight when disaster strikes, the quickening of the pulse, the flaring of the nostrils? Why are we attracted to calamity rather than repelled? Why do we rush towards the danger zone rather than run away? There is nothing odd here. Coping with catastrophe is what we do best. Just as well, considering how much of it there is around the place.


What happens when you know too much? History is littered with the trembling remains of people who not only knew too much but also suffered for it: Galileo, Darwin, Brunel, Hooke, Semmelweiss (who he?), even Odin and Cassandra. Big names, but what about you? When one morning you realise you know more about running the office than everyone else there, are they grateful, or do you incite the wrath of the gods?

Chaos and Creativity at Work

The evolution of the peacock’s tail gives us a warning about good ideas that get out of hand and run away from their original purpose. We celebrate ‘run away’, as ideas both good and bad go spinning through chaos towards farce. Runaway passwords; runaway Health and Safety, runaway web pages. The Law of Unintended Consequences shows how often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and how sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, either. But we must allow it, because, as we discover, chaos is the key to invention.

Corruption, Run-Away and the Shifting Base

Corruption begins innocently enough, with the gradual leaking away from robust accountability towards laziness and the easy option. The process is slow and nearly always inexorable. This is why in advanced nations there is a limit on the number of years a president can rule – the assumption is that corruption will be well established after a decade. The question is, how to deal with it day by day. Talk based on the book.

The Office Bestiary

In mediaeval times bestiaries were books that speculated about the weird and wonderful monsters described by travellers, and what they may tell us about ourselves. We know now there are no phoenixes, dragons or cyclopses; ostriches don’t hide their head in the sand; crocodiles never weep ‘crocodile tears’. However, we do have plenty of sharks, Portuguese man-of-wars, bats, bees, butterflies, and even assassin bugs. We can learn from these. Talk based on the book.

The Science of Fairness

Do you earn enough? Yes? If you found someone in a position lower than you earned more than you would you think it unfair? Even if they earned four million and you earned only three million? It appears that what really nags at us is not what we earn as such, but how much more or less it is than our neighbour. You’ll be pleased to know you are not alone in your concerns about fairness. The issue dates back almost to the beginnings of life on the planet. Bacteria, amoebas, even leguminous plants all behave as if they were making judgements about others’ fairness. Talk based on the book.

How to Get On

How to pass job interviews – What to wear to work – Why gossip is important – How to speak you mind without offending – How you can sometimes offend without speaking at all – Why nobody laughs at your jokes – Why everyone laughs at you the rest of the time – Why committees do what they do – Why the wrong people get promoted – How wrong decisions get made – Why the same mistakes keep being made – Why your good ideas are never accepted – Why you can’t avoid freeloaders – How to deal with cheats. You know; normal life. Talk based on the book.