Hardwired Humans...Us and Them


Hardwired Humans...Us and Them

Chimpanzees are the next most complex species to humans, so insight into their world gives us insight into ours. In the wild, group membership of chimps is critical for survival and where interactions with neighbours is potentially dangerous. Signalling group belonging and avoiding surprising one’s neighbours in the forest is important.  

A key way that chimps signal group belonging is by vocal accents. One group’s dialect differs from their neighbours’. 

Accents are Learned  

Professor Vernon Reynolds studied chimps in the Budongo Forest in Uganda (he started in the 1960s soon after Jane Goodall began in Tanzania, and then he left Uganda during the Idi Amin civil war period and returned in the 1990s to continue his work). 

In summarising a number of studies he writes that chimps have a basic set of 34 vocalisations and these are associated with a range of emotions. These emotions or feelings are expressed in different social situations and the different calls give information to others in the group. For example, the ‘Wraaa’ sound indicates fear, the ‘pant-grunt’ signals subordinancy and the ‘pant-hoot’ can indicate the presence of good food. Researchers have studied mainly the ‘pant-hoot’ and found distinct variations in the vocalisation from one group to another. These vocalisations are learned, they are cultural and are passed from generation to generation.

Reynolds also says that the more time males spend together the more similar their calls (males have probably been the subject of these studies as they stay in their natal group while females tend to migrate). And each group’s accent varies slightly over time to match the accent of the leader. And as will make sense to anyone who has emigrated, in studies of captive chimps it’s shown that an individual who joins a group adopts the local accent of the group they join – it no doubt helps them communicate. 

Accents Identify "Others"  

Belonging to one group and rivalry with another group are two sides of the same coin. Professor Reynolds’s  personal observation is that, “Having observed the reaction of members of the Sonso community to the calls coming from the (neighbouring) Waibira community to the north, it is clear that they not only know the calls are from foreign neighbours but show fear of (the calls) and when they hear them they move away fast to the south.” He was supporting an observation of Dr Goodall that distinct community accents might have arisen to give members of a group reliable and easy recognition of other groups in order to avoid aggressive interactions. 

(Source: Vernon Reynolds, The Chimpanzees of Budongo Forest – Ecology, Behaviour, And Conservation, Oxford University Press, USA, 2005)

Implications for Leaders  

In workplaces, leaders need to manage the tension that arises from group identify. On the one hand we need to provide a strong sense of identity of belonging to our own group yet avoid the potentially negative aspects of rivalry with other groups. We can go too far one way or the other. Membership and identity with our own group can be so strong that it costs us in our interactions with others, creates destructive tension and reduces overall performance. But if we don’t have a strong sense of identity and pride in membership of our own group then that will reduce our own team engagement and outputs.


Ideas to avoid the downside of potential rivalry with other teams:

  1. Collaboration is more likely across an organisation if senior executives – the high-power people – collaborate. If the top people don’t cooperate then people further down the hierarchy read those signals and take sides.
  2. Senior executives also need to quash any destructive rivalry – to be vigilant to foster a collaborative culture. 
  3. Convene meetings and briefings of people from across the organisation so there is a sense of camaraderie. 
  4. Individual leaders should organise meetings and events with other groups, especially ones who we work closely with.
  5. Hold your team meetings at other locations where you visit and mix with other teams.
  6. Speak positively about members of other teams and don't score points at the expense of others. And if you have an issue with individuals in another team take it up the individual or the leader of that other team.  
  7. Extend your own network in the organisation to connect with and bond with colleagues in other teams.   

The aim is to find a balance in having a strong “us” but without that strong identity being at the expense of “them”.  


Andrew O'Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

You may also like:

Or read some more free business tips:

Filed under Leadership Development and 1 other. Posted by The Corporate Toolbox on