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Two-and-a-half year-old chimpanzees and two-and-a-half year-old humans are, apparently, similar in intelligence. Where they differ sharply is in the ability to learn by copying. Kids copy carefully and constantly. Chimps try to figure things out themselves. The kids learn faster. 

It’s strange to think that what makes the humans intellectually superior is not so much the ability to think, but to imitate. So it seems the old phrase ‘monkey see, monkey do’ is less applicable to our fellow apes than to us. 

 And we don’t just copy what we need to, it seems. Experiments show that humans are prone to something called ‘over-imitation’. This means that we often copy all the behaviour of the person we are trying to learn from, not just the parts that seem important to complete the task. An example of this would be if you are trying to serve in tennis and repeatedly bounce the ball off the ground in front of you before tossing it in the air. The bouncing serves no purpose. It’s just that you’ve seen the pros do it – and you copy everything they do, even the bits that make no difference. 

In a study of members of the public conducted secretly at Edinburgh Zoo, a group of psychologists showed this tendency at work. They installed a puzzle box as part of an interactive display. The box would dispense a reward. They got a stooge to go up to the box, solve the puzzle and get a reward. The puzzle was fairly easy and it was possible for other passers-by to watch the stooge and realise which behaviour was necessary to release the reward and which wasn’t. And yet when the passers-by stepped up to the box, they copied the stooge’s irrelevant behaviour, as well as the behaviour that was relevant to getting the reward. 

Why do we have this tendency? Well, the theory goes that there is so much human knowledge, gathered over centuries, that to survive best it pays to copy everything our ancestors do, so that we can benefit from the accumulated wisdom of all the trial-and-error that they went through, without needing to understand how it all works. A good example of this is food preparation. There are many examples of rituals and recipes that make toxic foods edible, even though no-one who practices the rituals can explain why they are performed – those discoveries were made generations earlier, and are passed down as tradition without explanation. 

It’s not so hard to see the parallels with corporate culture. If we want to get ahead in corporate life – whether that’s military, educational, political or commercial – we ape the boss. We adopt the body language, vocabulary and work habits of those we’re learning from. Some of it might be essential for the job they do. Some of it might be irrelevant. Some of it might even be counter-productive: lots of posturing and preening by seniors is eagerly imitated by ambitious underlings, but detrimental to morale, workflow and the rational functioning of the workplace. 

So, our tendency to over-imitation might be problematic in a modern setting. It’s hard to tell which of the habits we observe are vital to the job and which are irrelevant or unhelpful. If my sergeant-major or editor hurls insults and sarcasm at his juniors, should I copy that behaviour when I get promoted? Does it serve a purpose? Is it a powerful tool in military or media leadership passed down from time immemorial? Or just a selfish, primitive, tendency that we should all now outgrow? Most of us would like to think the latter, obviously, but what if tough love is actually what works in a tough world? 

One way to make some progress is shift our focus from the behaviour itself to its intentions and its outcomes. Let’s say I have a boss that asks tough, cutting questions and offers little encouragement and support. What I should do is make a list of her intentions and her outcomes. It might look like this: 

Intentions

She wants to: 

  • Instil accountability  
  • Encourage independence and self-reliance 
  • Show that she’s not a soft touch 
  • Keep people on their toes, guessing where she might find fault 
  • Drive up standards 
  • Get the best out of us

Outcomes

What happens is: 

  • People are accountable, but a bit anxious 
  • People are not self-reliant because they’re always worrying what she might think 
  • Everyone understands she’s not a soft touch 
  • Standards are high; innovation and critical thought are not 
  • She gets the best out of some of us; no-one is allowed to slack off 
  • People respect her but could be more comfortable at work than they are 

As you can see she is having mixed success. So if I want to learn from her, I could try to copy some of the habits that I see working. If I dislike the way she does certain things, I could try to figure out her intentions, and see if I can find an alternative way of pursuing those aims.  

Where those of us in modern corporate life differ from toddlers and traditional cooks is that we have a duty to question traditions and the behavioural traits of leaders. We should be able to learn the method behind their madness. Imitation is part of the learning process. But no-one should try to prove themselves as leadership material by simply aping the boss. 

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