Is Your Office a Jungle?
How to Deal with Office Animals

By Dan Stockdale

The office is full of many different personality types. When you can identify the different types of those who work for or with you, you can better learn how to deal with and understand them. While there is no direct correlation between people and animals, you will clearly recognize some character traits and behaviors - perhaps even in yourself - in the following five animals that will help you to work with others.

Snakes: Snakes have a reputation for being sneaky and manipulative. In reality, they are very independent and highly adaptive. In the office, the snakes are not the office gossips or troublemakers! Rather, they are the people who prefer to keep to themselves and do their work, lying low in their quiet, unassuming way. Like their animal counterparts, most office “snakes” are beneficial to the environment and pose no danger to anyone.

To handle human snakes, you must be observant: What does this individual perceive as threatening? They hate sudden disruptions, so avoid abrupt changes and try not to spring anything on them out of the blue. Snakes work best when they feel as if they are always in the loop about matters that could affect them. Just because they’re quiet doesn’t mean that they don’t want and expect to be involved. Include them in all relevant decisions and make sure they’re aware of the status of projects so that nothing sneaks up on them.

Elephants: These majestic creatures are similar to humans in many ways: they have similar life spans and maturity phases, are bright, empathetic and have great memories. Their massive size gives them tremendous power. If you’ve ever seen the aftermath of a stampede, you know that a lot of inadvertent damage can occur to the surroundings.

Office elephants throw their weight around, exercising power simply because they can. They may or may not even realize the damage this behavior can cause. Usually, they have acquired this power over time, but they don’t have an official role in which to use it. For instance, a manager may change positions within your company after a number of years. Knowledge of the organization’s history and politics can be powerful. What’s more, even if the current role doesn’t give the “elephant” any real authority in the new position, he or she may hang on to the power inherent in the former position.

When you work with or supervise an “elephant,” consistent contact is essential to help ensure that they won’t use power and authority to make decisions that negatively affect you or projects. Stay in communication, speaking to the individual frequently, presenting ideas and getting feedback. Even if you’re not always able to use elephants’ ideas, at least you will help them to feel included in the process, and they will be more likely to tread lightly than stampede.      

Meerkats: These animals sprang into the popular imagination in animated form in The Lion King. Intensely loyal to their colony, meerkats take turns vigilantly watching out for predators. Office meerkats are the same way, always looking out for each other and the good of the entire group. They are excellent at developing and nurturing relationships, and will do whatever it takes to make sure the group functions as a team.

When working with “meerkats,” you must avoid doing anything that seems inconsistent with the goals of the organization. Such behavior is likely to incur their wrath. They are happy to inform the group if they discover behavior that undermines the group.

Because meerkats are not necessarily the showiest of office animals, you must remember to recognize and appreciate them. They deserve attention for consistently being present with the right attitude and the right work ethic.

Vultures: In the office, human “vultures” are committed to their projects and the company’s goals. You can identify office vultures by looking on the sidelines, where they tend to lurk, waiting for an opportunity to gain favor, sometimes at others’ expense. If you have vultures on your team, let your boss know often what you and each individual on the team is doing, so that a vulture can’t fly in and steal credit.

If you’re supervising vultures, communicate with each team member through informal one-on-one status updates. Ask what exactly they are involved in and how they feel the team is working together. You’ll find that vultures’ language will be full of “I’s” and not a lot of “we’s.” Even when questioned about the team, they’ll focus on what they are accomplishing rather than what the team is achieving.

Human vultures simply have huge egos, and to deal with them most effectively, you must stroke those egos and make them feel like they’re very important. Assign them personal projects and individual responsibilities, so they can shine on their own, not through taking credit for others’ work.

Donkeys: You can’t be truly successful if you’re surrounded by “yes” people all the time, and no team can function at its best without a variety of perspectives. Donkey types bring that to the table. They keep you and the team honest and thinking about other options. They are committed and want to do what is right. Unfortunately, donkeys often think that their way is the right way.

Find ways to give donkeys complete individual responsibility for a project. Let them know that they will be held entirely accountable for the project, whether it works or not. Give them the flexibility and latitude to do whatever they want to get results, but also make them accountable for the end product. They may learn eventually to listen to feedback from others, especially when they see that their way doesn’t always work.

Whether you’re the organization’s CEO or a member of a project team, you have at least a little bit of one of these animals in your personality, maybe even more than one. However, unlike these animals, you have been trained and adapted to your environment. The key is knowing how to train others on your team or in your employ.

No one likes to feel dictated to, no matter what their animal “type.”  Like animals, few humans really enjoy being told what to do, but we will all do many things willingly when we feel as if doing so is our own idea. Anytime you can make them feel as if the idea you’re presenting to them is theirs, not yours, you will be far more successful at getting what you want from them. When that happens, you’ll have flocks of happy employees who positively contribute to the company’s bottom line.

Read other articles and learn more about Dan Stockdale.

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