Managers And Zoo Keepers Have A Lot In Common


A newcomer to a group affects the team's dynamic. We've all noticed team members sizing up a newcomer and the new person working out where they fit in. Even the power of the boss can be affected, for better or worse, by a new arrival. With social animals, things can get pretty tricky when introducing a new member into the group.

Leaders we are currently taking to Australia's Melbourne Zoo for leadership development programs are hearing the story of a recent introduction of a gorilla to the zoo's gorilla community. Damian Lewis is a keeper at the zoo and this is the story he tells. You don't need me to make the connections from gorilla dynamics to human workplaces.

"Here in Melbourne Zoo our gorilla group comprises a silverback male and four females. A fifth female, Mbeli has been transferred to us from Sydney's Taronga Zoo. There were a couple of reasons for the transfer. In the wild, females of Mbeli's age of 7 often leave their family group to join another group. The second reason is that we thought the culture of our group could benefit from a new gorilla. We have a slight problem here are at Melbourne. Our silverback, Rigo, is not a very dominant leader-not as dominant as you would expect in the normal course of things for gorillas. As a consequence of this lack of power by the silverback, the most dominant female, Yuska, pretty much runs the show. She henpecks Rigo and dominates the females who support her against Rigo. His lack of leadership confidence reflects his upbringing. He grew up alone, which for social animals like gorillas has left him lacking social skills and not well adjusted to living in a group, let alone being the dominant and mating male. He got the job of silverback because of his technical capability (his genes), not because of his interpersonal skills. Young Mbeli is a socially confident individual and we believed that she would make a positive impact on the dynamic of our group.

"Introducing a new gorilla to the community is one of the most challenging things we get to do. Although we know all the individual personalities well, it's so dynamic and unpredictable. You never know quite how it's going to go, and sometimes it doesn't work out well at all. Sometimes the individual responses surprise you.

"We don't just throw a new gorilla into the community-it's very carefully planned.

"Mbeli's introduction started in April. First she was introduced to her new group through a glass window so they could see each other but not touch. Then we placed a mesh between them so they could just touch. A month later Mbeli was introduced to a single friendly individual and then we slowly built up to putting everyone together.

Mbeli, Meet Johari
"The gorilla to have first full contact was Johari. Aged 10, Johari is the closest in age to Mbeli. As you would expect of a couple of youngsters, they played together quite a bit. There was a bit of bickering and threatening behaviour as they worked out their relative dominance but overall this first step went well. They built a solid and friendly relationship.

"Next we introduced Mbeli to Rigo. He was a bit unsure of the newcomer. It's normal for a silverback to show dominance and social standing and he was somewhat aggressive towards her. Mbeli responded by showing her social savvy. She submitted to him, conceding to his power. She also stayed close to him, showing her confidence in Rigo and reassuring him of his standing.

Mbeli, Meet G-Ann
"G-Ann was next. G-Ann is 31 and the lowest ranked female. She had been showing a good deal of friendly interest in Mbeli through the mesh and the introduction went well. Despite Mbeli being a newcomer of a much younger age, G-Ann is still the lowest ranked. Mbeli can be quite mean to her which G-Ann just accepts. G-Ann doesn't seem too perturbed by remaining at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Mbeli, Meet Julia
"We're building up to introducing the dominant Yuska. Julia was next with only Yuska to go. Julia is 28 years old. When we introduced Julia to Mbeli we also placed Johari in the section. Our thinking was that Mbeli would be reassured in having her new play buddy with her. This introduction to Julia was a mix of calmness and volatility. Johari is Julia's daughter and Johari appeared torn between siding with her mum and supporting her new friend. They eventually settled down and Mbeli slotted into the hierarchy below Julia and Johari.

Okay Mbeli, Meet Yuska
"At this point Mbeli had been present for over two months. Throughout that time Yuska was aggressively demonstrating, screaming and banging on the mesh. A gorilla with any social awareness would know that Yuska was threatening and trying to put Mbeli in her place. Well, when we opened the mesh to finally allow them to meet, Mbeli took the initiative. She charged Yuska and punched her in the face! Johari backed her young friend. Yuska was thrown by this and retreated. For good measure, Mbeli took a bite out of Yuska's shoulder. It was a cat fight.

Yuska Gets In Sweet With The Boss
"After three months of separate introductions we then allowed the group to be together. Yuska chose an interesting strategy to retain her dominant position, no pun intended. At the time of the group first being together, Yuska was in oestrous-the sexually receptive stage of her cycle. For the three years since Rigo had joined the group as the silverback, Yuska had shown no sexual interest in him and for that whole time had refused to mate with him. Suddenly, with the introduction of Mbeli, she changed her strategy and presented herself for mating. She has continued to regularly mate with Rigo even though she is not in oestrous.

Affect on Culture
"It's now four months since Mbeli arrived, and just one month since they've all been together. We've already noticed a positive impact on the culture of the group. Mbeli's confidence in being close to Rigo has rubbed off on the others which has given Rigo more confidence. Consequently his power has increased and Yuska's has reduced. The females are less inclined to support Yuska so she is not able to run the show. It seems to be a more stable, harmonious group. Rigo is more in charge, which is what a gorilla group expects from its silverback."

Andrew O'Keeffe
[email protected]


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'.

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