For all those who have likened a co-worker to a snake, or couldn't help but picture their new parent company as a swarm of rapidly descending locusts, there's some heartening news. Though your fellow employees are often guilty of acting like the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz, there is much to learn by the jungle example when it comes to workforce management.
Larry Dressler, president of Boulder, Colo.-based leadership and organization development company Blue Wing Consulting (www.bluewingconsulti...) and author of the book Consensus through Conversation: How to Achieve High-Commitment Decisions, has culled a slew of management tips from his experiences in the Amazon rainforest.
The "jungle out there" has given the real thing a bad rap, but in actuality there's also a lot of cooperation going on in the wild, says Dressler, who lived in the Amazon for a year in 1994, and goes back periodically. "In rainforests, cooperation is rewarded," he points out. "When you walk into a tropical rainforest, you don't experience it as a place where species are competing. You see a system of really diverse and very interdependent players." Dressler, who also founded (and since sold) Batavia, N.Y.-based One World Projects, a company devoted to bringing the crafts and goods of local Amazonians to market in the United States and Europe, says symbiosis is a way of life in the jungle. For example, he says a tree may produce a kind of sap that attracts a certain kind of ant, whose presence then protects the tree's bark from fungus and other kinds of insects that would harm it.
Similarly, workers can be taught a corporate culture that emphasizes cooperation rather than competition, Dressler says. "Biologists have found nature favors cooperative traits over competitive traits," he explains, "because cooperation takes less energy, so if you think about how organizations work, how much energy gets sapped up by [being territorial], or by withholding information and resources?"
To remedy the sense that workers are pegged against each other, Dressler recommends assigning them group projects that force them to collaborate to be successful. And so much the better if the teams draw workers from other business areas. "I'm a huge advocate of cross-functional conversations-not the usual suspects winding up in a room together to talk about new ways in which their disciplines, their resources and their goals could come together to create something entirely different than existed before when they operated independently."
Companies also can learn from the positive role played by change in the rainforest, Dressler says. "What we learn from nature is when we spend too much time in our comfort zone, we die," he says, explaining that the nearly constant environmental change of the rainforest forces species to adapt or die off. The same is true of the business world-organizations that don't adapt to changing times will eventually lose profitability, and employees who don't acquire new skills will find themselves out of work.
"As a trainer, the thing I have to ask myself is, 'How do I create an impetus for people to be positively disturbed?' " he says.
One course Dressler and his team teaches, "Fierce Conversations," forces workers to constructively discuss touchy subjects. Instead of "role-play," he calls this "real play" because participants are asked to bring real situations to the table, such as a worker's dissatisfaction with her boss' micromanagement, or another employee's frustration with a co-worker who keeps falling through on group projects.
"If we don't have this constant tension moving us toward change," he says of the need for a dynamic corporate environment, "we're not growing." —M.W.