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Leadership Lessons From the Animal Kingdom


This post was inspired by a conversation with a client, who also happens to be a bird keeper with an aviary in his backyard. He is a great leader and his team would do anything for him. One day he shared some insights with me that drew on his observations of the animal kingdom.

When one of his birds got sick, he explained, he couldn’t tell. It looked exactly the same as the other birds and kept up its activity. If it hadn’t stopped eating he may not have seen there was a problem. He went on to say that birds don’t display their illness because that makes them vulnerable and attractive to predators.

Do employees feel the same way? That showing their insecurities, problems, questions and concerns will turn them into prey?

I see examples of this all the time: Employees hiding real issues that the team needs to know about. Bosses not leveling with their team. Teammates not discussing the elephant in the room. Lots of puffed up talk about how great things are going, when really, they are not.

If there’s an injury somewhere on your team, it can’t get better unless you acknowledge the problem, triage your action steps, seek help, and move forward together.

A leader needs to make it okay or safe for people to speak up, even if what they say will be unpopular or bad news. A team must be able to speak freely about problems or issues that will just get bigger if they’re not dealt with head on.

How leaders can make it safe for team members to speak up

  1. Schedule regular meetings for “critical issues,” outside of the regular staff update meetings. Tell everyone to come prepared to discuss whatever the team has to stop avoiding, or things that will set you off course if we don’t solve them.

  2. Reward people for bringing issues to the table. Thank them publicly and then lead a discussion. For starters, is this something we can solve right now? Do we have the right people in the room, or do we need to bring in other people and have a later discussion? Whatever you do, don’t bury, hide or ignore it. Apply your wisdom to work on the issues you can affect some change on.

  3. When your people bring up these issues, encourage them to help solve them. Use your team. Utilize their unique strengths and perspectives to design a good solution. The best way to solve a problem is through ownership by the team closest to the problem. Generally speaking, the further up you go, the less insight and detail the managers will have on the problem.

  4. Tune in to the subtleties below the surface. For example, if someone seems to be holding back, you might want to call on them – or pull them aside after the meeting. If there is a team member who is the problem, no one may want to label that, so you must be paying attention. You have to take that poor performer aside and work with them. You never want to discuss that publicly.

If you cultivate this kind of trusting environment with your team, the benefits will be huge – you can move faster, get things done, and make sure the whole team is on board.

Have you ever been on a team where people had to hide bad news or unpopular opinions? What could the leader have done differently? Please add your comment below, or share with me on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or email.

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