A Tap on the Glass - Vol. 70 - Loincloth Optional

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If your office sometimes feels like an animal house, you may not be far off the mark. Several studies show similarities between people functioning in the business world and animals coping in the wild.

There are many lessons businesses and workers can glean from studying animal behavior. From interacting with the boss to determining business risks, animals show us that we may not be that different after all. Here are several animal characteristics that are just as visible in the workplace.

Decision Making
When bees need to find a new nest, scout bees are sent out to search for suitable nesting sites and report back their findings using a waggle dance, The Economist explains. Other scouts visit the sites reported by the initial scouting group and return to perform more waggle dances. Eventually, the bees come to a consensus on the best site and the swarm migrates. "The decision is remarkably reliable," The Economist notes.

During observation of the bees' scouting process, researchers introduced computerized bees that were good at finding nesting sites but did not communicate well. This slowed the migration and left the swarm vulnerable. In another instance, computerized bees that followed blindly without checking the site led to swift but mistaken decisions.

The reason the real bees were able to identify the best site is because they "listened" to what the scouts suggested and confirmed this information before making a decision. "There is a danger in blindly following the party line, a danger the honeybees seem to avoid," The Economist adds.

According to Dr. Christian List of the London School of Economics who headed the bee research, "the swarm manages to block and prevent the kind of groupthink that can bedevil good decision making. People demonstrate this kind of bad decision-making when investors pile into a stock and others follow, creating a bubble for which there is no good reason."

The way the bees come to their consensus decision is something governments, businesses or other decision-making groups should think about, The Economist suggests — that is, share all information with a committee and investigate the issues and information presented before taking a vote.

The Economist also touches on the importance of leadership both in ant colonies and in business. In his study of ants called Temnothorax albipennis, University of Bristol researcher Nigel Franks reports the disadvantage of making a swift choice and not having proper leadership.

According to Franks' observations on ant migration, scout ants mark the route to the new nest and return to train the other ants. Because relatively few ants know the route, there is a great need to get other ants on board so the group can move as quickly as possible.

In relation to people, The Economist notes, this behavior "indicate(s) the importance of recruiting active leaders to a cause because, as the ants and bees have discovered, the most important thing about collective decision-making is to get others to follow."

A recent study by scientists at Oregon State University and the University of Hawaii observes that spinner dolphins, which are known for their teamwork in capturing prey, have evolved a strategy that allows them to not only feed but also maximize their energy intake.

The dolphins surround lantern fish, forming a tight circle with 10 pairs of dolphins, e! Science News reports of the study. The pairs at 1 o'clock and 7 o'clock move in, feed for 15 seconds and move back to the circle to allow the next set of pairs to feed. This continues until each dolphin has had an opportunity to feed twice. Then the group rises to the surface all together, take a breath, dive back in and start the process over.

Because dolphins can't open their mouths like whales and swallow large amounts of food at once, "they have to target individual fish, and it's too difficult and energy-consuming to hunt solo," according to Kelly Benoit-Bird, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. "They've had to adapt these unique behavioral methods to maximize their ability to capture prey." If not for this feeding strategy, each dolphin would have to eat a fish a minute.

Similarly, in the business world, companies unable to adapt have a more difficult time surviving.

To that end, professional organizer and entrepreneur Lorie Marrero recommends leveraging a company's network and teaching resourceful habits for team members to develop resourcefulness (via LifeHack):

  • Build and maintain a list of people from various backgrounds who you can call on for questions and support; and
  • Teach teams how to look up information on their own, encourage initiatives and when they come to a meeting with a problem, have them show up with proposed answers to those problems as well.

Lastly, Marrero reminds us that to be resourceful, one must practice being a creative problem solver.

In the book The Ape in the Corner Office, Richard Conniff compares the workplace dynamics to the way chimpanzees live and interact with each other. For example, smiling is derived from "the fear grin in monkeys," the Hindu Business Line says of Conniff's book. "In a group of macaques, for example, the approach of the alpha male may cause a subordinate to cringe and nervously pull back the corners of the mouth, exposing clenched teeth. It's a signal meaning, 'I'm not a threat.'"

In another example offered from the book, chimpanzees engage in mutual grooming but they also watch one another continually and protest unfair dealings. Chimpanzees follow a formal structure for cooperating and getting along with one another, from playing nice to dealing with aggression and power struggles to handling various temperaments within the group.

In human terms, our workplace is our troop and the alpha male is the boss. "Being nice, even strategically nice, is a natural behaviour of monkeys, apes, investment bankers and other creatures formerly deemed savage," Conniff says. While chimps groom each other, humans display this altruism through "friendly conversation and kind words."

Like the chimpanzee troop, the workplace can function only if the workers within cooperate with one another, recognize aggression, protest inappropriate behavior and manage emotional conflicts. Conniff concludes that "we achieve the greatest success by recognising these traits in our colleagues and balancing conflict with co-operation to work with our peers to solve problems and achieve success."

Risk Taking vs. Risk Aversion
Today, increasingly complex global supply networks combined with mounting economic pressures make risk management a more crucial capability and a key differentiator for the supply chain. Oxford Risk Research and Analysis (ORRA), a business risk advisory organization that gets its insight from animal behavior, cites its research on the behavior of starlings in comparison to petroleum companies. Starlings forage for food similar to the way oil companies forage for oil. They both eventually face the dilemma of staying in a field that's productive but in decline or move on to new, untested fields.

"A risk-averse strategy would be to stay in a field that is still productive but has declining output of worms or oil; a risk-taking strategy would be to move on and take a chance on finding new supplies somewhere else," ORRA tells the Financial Times.

"There is a critical point at which you should switch from being risk-averse to gambling for survival," Sir John Krebs, Royal Society Research Professor at Oxford University and ORRA co-founder, adds. This depends on an animal's or a business's remaining reserves — food or financial resources, respectively.

Companies should continually assess the risks in their business to minimize them and figure out when to go from being a risk-taker to being risk-averse. To manage business risks, Small Business Notes offers these basic suggestions: 1) identify risks, 2) measure them, 3) formulate strategies to limit risks, 4) implement these strategies, and 5) continuously monitor these efforts.

"While you can't anticipate everything, a good brainstorming session in which you look at 'what if thus and so happens' will go a long way towards helping you plan for some of the emergencies that arise," Small Business Notes adds. "The more backup plans and alternatives you have available, the better off you will be."

So, is there an ape in your corner office? Does your team approach decisions like bees or work together like dolphins? Pay attention to your surroundings. You may find there's a little animal kingdom in your cube jungle.