A lot has been written about biomimicry and the inspiration that product designers get from studying nature — the skeletal structure of a flying squirrel informing the design of drones or the layered butterfly wing to help create optical coatings for displays. But I have recently been thinking about how interpersonal relationships also mimic the animal world (beyond the fact that homo sapiens are technically animals). In our business relationships, especially in our teamwork where conflict is common, how do we resemble members of the animal kingdom? Specifically, I’ve identified the five most common animal defense systems that I’ve seen in the workplace (including my own) to help identify defense triggers. By better understanding ourselves and each other, we can better react to perceived threats and leverage our natural abilities to overcome conflicts and work better as a team.
I’ll start with the disclaimer that these animal analogies are not flattering. Just like the circumstances in the wild that trigger defense mechanisms, life and teamwork can be messy. They are meant to elicit some introspection and a renewed commitment to conflict resolution so each team member can bring their strengths and work together.
Cobra: I recognize that I often act as a cobra. This snake is well known for the flare up — when threatened, it can rise up and make itself look bigger to scare away would-be predators. In our relationships, this shows up as verbal defensiveness and a posture change. In a business setting, people who mimic cobras often change their posture stand and speak loudly to exude confidence, and often interrupt others. Their emphatic statements might be so persuasive they parade as facts. At their best, they provide passion, clarity and a sense of mission to their team. At their worst, they can be bullies or manipulators. They do all of this in order to put the idea forward more aggressively when others object, and can become dogmatic.
If you are a cobra: When you feel like you need to be bigger, louder, or more aggressive, consider instead the power of gentle persuasion and the need to listen completely to the other side before reacting out of impulse.
If you are working with a cobra: As a cobra, I respond well when teammates push back with new data points and different perspectives. I would encourage colleagues not to let the scary hood or confidence dissuade them from presenting an alternative views. Cobras can be poor (or incomplete) listeners and need people to tell them the truth and help them refine their gut feelings (which trigger the defense mechanism) to help others see their perspective without feeling threatened.
Turtle: The turtle has been immortalized in folk tales as a slow-moving, methodical animal. An animal who wears his defense mechanism on his sleeve, literally. When threatened, the plodding animal gives up any forward progress, to recess into his shell and hide until the threat has passed. I have seen this pattern many times in my colleagues or team mates, a slow-and-steady person, who only agreed to change on a step-by-step basis and will retreat into their shells until everyone can just agree and get along. As turtles don’t need facts to retreat into their shells, they might not even be able to articulate in words what threat is perceived and what might result from the threat. At their best, they provide a comprehensive, well thought out plan and long term direction. At their worst, turtles procrastinate deadlines and decisions, which stalls progress and can delay results.
If you are a turtle: When you feel the temptation to retreat, assess the real threat. Consider the consequences of the worst case scenario and the benefits and drawbacks of making a change. Consider talking to someone who has a bolder approach for their advice. The goal is to determine if there is a way to step out of your comfort zone and start the changing process, or if the threats must be resolved before you leave your shell.
If you are working with a turtle: I have found communication to be key to effectively team with a turtle. It is important to be proactive with the turtle before the defense mechanism is triggered by a complaint or concern. Break down the larger projects and priorities into their pieces, showing the step-by-step processes and how to mitigate risk along the way. Clearly outline roles, responsibilities and decision makers so the turtle knows who to connect with if questions and or suggestions arise.
Electric Eel: The electric eel is ready with 600 volts of electricity to dole out to any would-be predator. There is no negotiation or posturing. There is no hiding. There is only attack. I have certainly worked with many eels. Eels are sharp — armed with data, analysis, and opinion, the eel can unload on anyone who disagrees with them with a current of logical arguments and justifications. They can have a tendency to belittle others, leaving them writhing on the ground after an encounter. At their best, eels are knowledgeable and persuasive. At their worst, they use the threat of retaliation as a deterrent to keep people from disagreeing with them, often unwittingly. Gliding along in their own “everyone agrees with me world,” they may not know that people are not being honest with them or alerting them to potential issues.
If you are an eel: I would encourage you to balance your initial approach with a committed desire for long-term relationship. Think about the person, not just the power you have. You might win the argument with a co-worker and force others into submission, but that isn’t good teamwork. Remember that the focus of your energy should be positive encouragement, not disparaging comments. Make sure you wield data, not shame.
If you work with an eel: Make sure you do your homework. Know your stuff and be prepared for a sting. Dig into the data with them, which might help get the eel on the same side of the negotiating table with you, rather than see themselves in an adversarial role. And if you get stung, there are several approaches to take, but the one that will lead to the most respect is to stand up for yourself. It may be extremely hard, but the bravery it takes to say “that’s not okay” and “here is how you should have responded,” can take the amperage out and put you back at a power parity with your eel colleague.
Sea Cucumber: This very strange animal has an unusual defense mechanism: it surrenders. The highly pliable organism can break itself into pieces, sacrificing body parts (including organs) to a predator until the predator is preoccupied and the sea cucumber (or what is left of it) can get way. It wants to end the conflict as soon as possible and retreat to where it can heal. In the workplace, these are often the soft spoken colleagues who are less likely to take a contrary (and never a combative) view with the group. They are eager to please and just want everyone to get along and mind their own. The problem with this approach is that their valuable perspectives are never shared, which does harm the team and empowers more aggressive colleagues. At their best, their empathy and willingness to pitch in can help the team complete tasks. At their worst, they can be an easy target and take the brunt of bullying.
If you are a sea cucumber: Think about how you can best engage and give your ideas without having to sacrifice yourself. Have confidence that the team deserves your participation. Also, consider that the relative costs of speaking up in the moment is more effective and valuable than having to nurse wounds or regrow body parts later.
If you work with a sea cucumber: I find speaking with reclusive teammates is most beneficial in a 1:1 or smaller setting. If I see that a colleague has taken a brunt of tension-filled meeting and not spoken up, I try to draw them out of their tendency of self-sacrifice to encourage them communicate their ideas and perspectives.
Grizzly Bears: One of the few animals with no natural-born predators, I think we can all learn from the grizzly bears to be a more effective team. Unarmed, even a clever human can’t beat the bear. She doesn’t have to inflict, hide in the woods, or rise up to scare away people to stay alive, because she is capable of all of those things. She doesn’t have to be defensive, because she has power.
How we can be more like Grizzly Bears: We shouldn’t lead with our defense mechanisms, those are there to protect us at the expense of others – the exact opposite of teamwork. We should strive to be our true, higher selves by using our defenses for good so the best ideas come to the forefront.
By recognizing our own biomimicry characteristics, we can combine our natural strengths to harness the confidence of the cobra, the thoughtfulness of the turtle, the healing powers of the sea cucumber, and the knowledge of the eel. By leveraging our defensive tendencies into powerful tools, we can be a team of grizzly bears — working together to influence others, to excite change, to achieve greatness.