Is It A Dolphin Or Is It A Shark? Dealing With Difficult Personalities In The Workplace

I’m sure that we have all had the experience of thinking we knew something to be a fact, only to find out later we were mistaken.  Sometimes this awareness is a relief; at other times it can serve to increase our anxiety.  At any rate, it is generally better to know the truth versus illusion to help us respond effectively. 

On my family’s first trip to Florida I experienced an incident that helps clarify this point.  It was spring break and we all eagerly ventured to the beach on our first day in Florida.  The sun was shining, the sand was fine and white and the ocean a beautiful shade of turquoise.  My daughters were about 13 and 15 years old at the time and were avid swimmers.  I remember sitting on the beach and watching them bob in the waves, laughter filling the air.  Suddenly I spotted a gray fin sliding along the surface of the ocean not ten feet from where my daughters were swimming.  Well, this "landlubber" mom jumped to the conclusion that Jaws was about to have my girls for lunch!  I jumped up and was about to call them back to shore when I overheard several comments from others about the "beautiful dolphins" approaching the swimmers.  Needless to say…I learned that dolphins repeatedly dive and surface, where sharks can cruise along the surface of the water.  Relief!  I sat back down and enjoyed the show. 
As I work with organizations that experience problems concerning employee relationships, I am reminded of the dolphin or shark scenario. 

Sometimes an employee looks like a shark and is really a dolphin or vice versa…sometimes what appears to be a loyal, hard working, trusted employee is really a shark in dolphin’s clothing!  Have you ever experienced the strange sensation of someone smiling at you and speaking gently, while at the same time you have the distinct sensation of a cold steel blade twisting between your shoulder blades? 

 *This, my friend, is a shark trying to look like a dolphin.* 
 Unfortunately, most organizations of any size have at least one of these sea creatures.  If there is more than one in an organization, they almost always despise each other. (Kind of like muskies and northern pikes.) They each need their own territory. 
 The typical scenario includes a hard working individual (sometimes too hard working) who is on many committees, knows almost everyone and has evolved to a position of power or control in the organization.  They seem to know all the rumors as well as most "management" level information.  Management tends to look to these individuals for feedback, suggestions and the like.  So why do these people continually attract attention, both good and bad?   

That’s right…they’re sharks in dolphin clothing
 Occasionally you see flashes of their razor sharp teeth in a comment or an action, but generally they are very bright and adept at looking like dolphins and usually providing valued service to the organization.  Their goals and objectives include being needed (they usually don’t like to share all they know), and having a lot of power and control. 

 Managers who are trusting and haven’t spent much time or awareness on "ocean" matters are great bait for sharks.  However, sharks are more wary of managers who have been bitten before, or who have developed the ability to "listen to their gut" because these managers can see through their dolphin costume.  Recognizing sharks is a skill managers can develop, but it takes time, collaboration with other managers, and a willingness to consider that someone you may count on, for support and valued service, may be the same individual who creates consistent, sometimes covert chaos. 

Dealing with sharks can be difficult!  You may need the assistance of an external consultant due to the shark’s pervasive presence throughout an organization.  At the very least management needs to collaborate regarding the shark so that information can be shared and a united front be created to keep the shark in its boundaries.   

Frequently novice or trusting managers may need to be convinced that a shark is swimming in the organizational waters.  They protest, "look at all he or she does…."; "I’m sure _____ is unlucky because all these things keep happening to them…".  This is dangerous.   

Yes, it’s true that there are real dolphins in every organization.  But sharks are real too and an organization that allows them to swim freely through their waters will pay a dear price via lost personnel, possible harassment litigation, inefficiencies (they need control remember) and poor morale. 

How to Recognize a Shark  

  1. Trust your intuition.  
    If something doesn’t "feel" right when interacting with an individual; pay attention.  
  2. Collaborate with other managers. 
    Have a network of trusted colleagues to discuss your assumptions safely.
  3. Look for chaos (or at least discord) to be near them. 
    They may not be "in" the chaos, but they like to stir it up and often thrive on it.) 
  4. Pay attention to those individuals who seem to ‘need’ a lot of control or power.
     They may manipulate unsuspecting managers to get it.
  5. Consider using a pre-employment assessment to get more information prior to hiring. 
    Shark-like qualities may show up in the evaluation.

What to Do When a Shark is Spotted in Your Organization

  1. Be consistent. Collaborate with other managers to present a united front (sharks try to conquer and      divide.)
  2. Set clear boundaries for their behavior. 
  3. Recognize the effect sharks have on their peers and subordinates and support them. 
  4. If sharks remain "shark-like" consider getting an outside opinion regarding the prognosis for coaching to help or consider terminating the shark.

As stated previously, sharks can and often do contribute legitimately to an organization, however the path of destruction left in their wake, if left to swim freely can cost dearly in lost time, personnel and morale.  So the next time you encounter a problem, ask yourself… 
…is it a dolphin or perhaps a shark?? 
Swim safely!

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