Waterhole warriors and mandrill management in British Airways truce

January 30, 2007

According to a Ghanaian saying, when the big beasts arrive at the waterhole, it’s time for the mice to hide. Yesterday, the leaders of British Airways and the Transport and General Union moved their troops to the waterhole. It seemed a case of Mandrill management. But the body language of the leaders had already signalled their intentions of reaching a bloodless truce.


The strike of Cabin Crew at British Airways scheduled for today was called off yesterday after last-ditch negotiations by corporate and Union leaders. The drama reminded me of something a colleague from Ghana was fond of saying about industrial conflicts, that when the big beasts arrive at the waterhole, it’s time for the mice to hide.

Waterhole behaviors and Mandrill Management

Why should a Ghanaian maxim about jungle beats throw light on the current industrial relations battle at British Airways? The metaphor suggests that in times of conflict we may see patterns of human behaviour reflective our deeper instructs for fight/flight.

The process has even been described colourfully as Mandrill management.

This variety of ape, famous for its red nose, turns out to be one of the biggest bullies in the simian world. Mandrills are creatures dedicated to the cult of the Alpha Male. They spend their lives climbing to the top of the group hierarchy and, once there, behave abominably. Bottoms are flashed, willies waved, rivals clobbered and females impregnated with abandon.

Waterhole behaviours tend to be ritualistic. There may be some baring of teeth by the alpha-males, but more often than not the conflicts are resolved peaceably. For the alpha males, a temporary truce is the preferred outcome.

If we are to take the analogy further, we might note that the ritualistic nature of the conflict also preserves the superiority of the leaders over their own followers. In this instance, as a pitched battle seemed likely, the leaders took their place at the head of their respective armies, replacing their deputies.

At this stage, the language (speech acts as the social scientist would call them) of each leader was that of respect. They met to parley, not fight. And parley they did. Yet, the ritual has its own demands. The waterhole rituals can not be abandoned too swiftly. Why? Because that would leave open the opportunity of another wannabe leader stepping up to challenge not just the enemy without, but as importantly, the position of alpha-male in his own troop.

The key points agreed by BA

In practice, the outcome of such a stand-off will be couched in win-win terms. Concessions are reported, even if they had not figured highly in earlier stages of the conflict, making it difficult foe either side to claim total victory.

For example, the current dispute has been described as being about excessive sickness days by BA cabin crew (BA version), and bullying of crew to work even when they were sick (Union version, and an accusation of Mandrill management methods at BA). The agreement yesterday indicated that

BA and the union have also agreed on the implementation of the current sick leave policy, introduced 18 months ago, whereby staff have to explain to managers why they were off sick .. The T&G says it is now happy that the policy will be implemented fairly, and that staff will not feel obliged to go to work if they are sick.

That wasn’t Mandrill Management

The wider issues of concern between BA and the T&G union have been ‘resolved’ with plenty of scope (it seems to me) for future renewal of hostilities. A pay deal for two years has been agreed. Company efforts at addressing a major pensions fund deficit have been ‘noted’. Cabin crew team leaders are to be reduced from four to three on the largest planes of the fleet.

Overall, the outcome is adequately complex to defeat efforts at establishing winners or losers. Try as we might, we can hardy make sense of what happened ‘at the waterhole’ as essentially down to two leaders engaged in Mandrill management. The complexity of the agreement suggests extended and thoughtful effort by wider teams dealing with matters requiring high levels of experience and professional knowledge.

But there might still be a culture of confrontation

So congratulations are in order to the leaders who snatched at least a temporary respite from all-out conflict. Nevertheless, we can understand the reasoning behind the BBC observation that

BA also has to continue to deal with what some analysts see as an ongoing environment of worker militancy.

The content of the negotiations might demonstrate creative problem-solving. Nevertheless, the implicit messages are of Mandrill Management embedded in the perceived culture of alleged bullying of cabin crew to work when sick. Willie Walsh and Tony Woodley both won their present leadership positions with track records as tough confrontational leaders.
Which suggests that the truce at the waterhole may still only be a prelude to more serious battles.