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“Mark Zuckerberg goes in for the kill.” “A hit to Elon Musk.” “Meta lands knockout blow on Twitter.” Headline writers reached for the age-old tropes this week as the owner of Facebook announced the launch of Threads.
Who can blame them? Business is boring compared with violence. Hence why (mostly) men in suits love metaphors that evoke combat. How ironic, therefore, that the two protagonists in this social media battle have agreed to actually fight.
Please let it happen. Chief executives have been neutered for too long. Given many are borderline psychopaths, turning them into bland commodities probably reduced share price risk. But comms and PR teams have made the world a duller place.
And I struggle to think of a single other case of company heads going for the literal jugular. Bouts between middle managers — even interns — are equally rare. The real story of Zuck vs Musk is just how unusual white-collar rumbles now are. My old chief investment officer used to pace the desks with a baseball bat and, yes, it made us nervous. But I never saw him swing it (although I did wake up on the floor with a sore head once).
Data on the prevalence of office brawls is hard to come by. First, because most studies — such as the much-cited global survey by the International Labour Organization, Lloyd’s Register Foundation and Gallup — do not separate physical violence from harassment.
Second, studies of altercations in the workplace tend to lump all forms of employment together, capturing police officers and prison wardens as well as accountants and secretaries. This distorts the picture, somewhat.
For example, a Health and Safety Executive report from the UK government, which does provide a breakdown by occupation as well as distinguishing assaults from threats, reckons that “protective service” workers, such as security guards, face six times the average risk of physical violence.
No surprise there. But it is six times a very low rate to begin with — just 1.4 per cent of respondents. As for office workers being assaulted, only 0.8 per cent of the 4,000 surveyed have experienced it.
Nor have I ever witnessed or heard of a punch-up in my three decades in finance, consulting and journalism. Everyone I ask says likewise. This has always amazed me, considering the long hours, insane levels of stress and (in the case of banking) huge amounts of money involved — all common predictors of violent outbreaks.
I’ve seen countless puny bosses usher silverback colleagues into a private room to say: “You’re fired, no bonus.” They always emerge unscathed. Rival executives glare at each other in meetings for years, red-faced with frustration, but never trade blows.
How come? Offices are professional spaces, which means best behaviour by definition. They are temples of the mind — supposedly — not muscle. Culture and teamwork are instilled from day one. And I guess the fear of losing one’s job, or jail in the worst cases, always helps.
But subjugating our base impulses isn’t a given. It doesn’t extend to how offices deal with romance or sex, for instance. In a recent US survey, 43 per cent of respondents who date a colleague end up marrying them. A similar proportion who had a workplace romance cheated on their partner with a colleague. Half said they flirt in the office.
In comparison, the statistically insignificant amount of biffo — so prevalent elsewhere in society — is a triumph of either restraint or design. Whatever the reason, we should be celebrating. And if there is something uniquely safe about office settings, perhaps we should rethink our new obsession with working from home.
Of course, a Musk-Zuck ruck is pure showboating — if inconsistent with white-collar peace and love. Still, it would be fabulous entertainment. Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is involved in the plan. There is talk of millions going to charity.
All good stuff. But I mostly wish to see two chief executives in a cage fight because I believe that leaders should put everything on the line and charge from the front. How different to politicians waging war miles from the bullets. Or bosses who earn a fortune irrespective of results.
Two men making fools of themselves should also be encouraged. It will be good therapy. Managers of the world — mostly anodyne, now, to the point of pointlessness — take note. To my mind, it is no coincidence that Musk and Zuckerberg want to fight while having created $1.6tn in market value between them.