Piggy in the middle

My sister is a middle child and she says that part of her personality is shaped by being that. The eldest is the boss. The youngest is the cutest baby of the family. But middle children, especially if they are the same sex as the eldest, often feel left out and invisible, as if they are not unique at all and nothing belongs to them. Studies say that middle children are more flexible, better listeners and better talkers than their siblings but are far more prone to depression.

A manager in the middle rung of the government or company would probably be also stressed terribly. He is not senior enough to be followed implicitly. He has to maintain order and progress, yet he can be unseated whenever the bosses want. He has to toady to the people upstairs and rule the people downstairs and yet his salary is as insecure as the people he rules. He faces challenges both from above and below. No wonder most of the heart problems occur in the middle ranks.

Is this a unique human feature or does it exist in all animals. I am certain all colony creatures like ants, wasps and bees would have different management executives as well. Monkeys, who live in troops and certainly have all the features and probably as much intelligence as humans, would also have management levels.

A recent study, done by Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology on Barbury macaques, showed that middle-ranking Barbury macaques experience the most stress of their troop. The team spent 600 hours monitoring a group of varying ranks. They were monitored on how long they spent eating or resting, and recording any threatening behaviour or chases and positive group behaviour such as grooming or close contact. This was combined with hormone readings taken from their faeces. Macaques, like humans, release specific hormones to cope with periods of high stress, including hydrocortisone (cortisol) from the adrenal gland to increase blood sugar and accelerate the fight or flight response.

Samples were collected throughout the day and analysed to take into account differences between morning and afternoon samples. The study also took into consideration personality type, availability of social support within the group, or previous experience. The findings showed that when individuals faced antagonistic behaviour such as threats, chases and slaps, their levels of cortisol were highest. Middle ranking monkeys recorded the highest levels of cortisol almost all the time.

In any group with a hierarchy, there are rules on who can have the best food and the best grooming partners. A middle monkey might want them, but if the high ranking monkeys want the same, then the middle ones have to give them up. This could be done passively – the lower rankers moving away from the source of food, or aggressively with threats.

And, similar to human beings, those in the middle were more likely to be challenged by those higher up, while simultaneously batting away advances from lower ranking individuals that would not dare attack those at the top of the hierarchy. The team found that unlike the small fry monkeys on the front lines—and , unlike those that reign supreme who distance themselves from any conflict, middle-managing monkeys are getting hit from both sides while being tasked with keeping the peace amongst everyone. Other macaque observers say that middle monkeys have a really hard time. “Middle-ranking individuals are under more stress because their interactions are less predictable. They're not exactly sure how others are going to respond to them and how they should respond to others." says National Geographic macaque observer Agustin Fuentes.

According to the 2012 annual Employee Outlook report by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Europe's largest professional institute for people management, 49 % of middle managers said they are under excessive pressure every day or once or twice a week – which was 12 percent more than the top or the bottom of the hierarchies. The report revealed they were generally less satisfied with their work-life balance, more concerned about job security and most likely to be looking for a new job. And this doesn’t apply only to civilians in a cubicle but also to middle rankers in the military.

How are the monkeys, stuck in middle management, taking out their frustrations?

A common stress reliever among macaques is taking care of infants. Both males and females spend time and groom younger members of the troop, whether their own infant or someone else's. That helps them calm down. This is similar to how humans pet their dogs or cats when they come home from a long and stressful day. Macaques scratch themselves more if they are stressed. So do people. (Watch out for an itchy boss before you confront him). A stressed-out macaque will seek an individual within their network for companionship. Female macaques, who tend to stay close to their relatives, will go to their mothers to be embraced. Those that are really annoyed at being where they are will use threats, slapping the ground and chasing opponents till they calm down. The report records “agonistic behaviour like threats, chases and slaps, submissive behaviour like displacing, screaming, grimacing and hind-quarter presentation.”

Can you see the same happening in your office?

Maneka Gandhi, politician, animal rights activist and environmentalist writes weekly column Heads & Tails for the Kashmir Observer. To join her animal rights movement [email protected]

 

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