"Eeeek eeeek. Wakka wakaa!" That is one of the many calls of the gregarious meerkat. Translation: probably something like "Run, Forrest! Run!" It's a constant battle for meerkats to protect themselves from the elements of the blistering Kalahari Desert. Each day must be meticulously calculated and every member must work in concert to stave off a startling range of threats, and capitalize on tasty opportunities.
Oxford Scientific Films' Meerkat Manor, a once-popular series on Animal Planet, gives viewers a front-row seat to the lives of these charismatic mammals. As I snuggled deeper into the covers one morning to watch the show, I realized that we could all learn a valuable lesson from these compassionate creatures, a lesson in teamwork. Each of the meerkats is given a name. Cleopatra, the alpha female, is the glue that holds the group together. Like any leader, Cleo's mission is to steer the group in the right direction and keep them safe as they go out on their missions.
Standing at just about one foot tall, meerkats are thoughtful and courageous leaders who practice inclusion and work together for the good of the gang. Recognizing that their strength lies in numbers they never stray too far away from each other. Each one looks after the other and if there's trouble afoot, the designated sentry will belt out an inviolable call for the gang to get to the nearest burrow for safety.
Most of us know all too well of the pains and gains of working in teams. But, since more and more projects demand this approach it would behoove us all to give a salient effort at being better team members and leaders. Meerkats display some of the most powerful characteristics of a healthy team:
Lead, and Sometimes, Be Led
Like a meerkat gang every team large or small needs a leader, but that doesn't mean we devalue everyone else. Members draw examples from their leader, pessimism draws naysayers, and optimism draws doers. A thoughtful leader encourages ideation among the group and makes unbiased decisions based on the option(s) that best help the team meet its goals. She often seeks the opinions of the team before making any sizeable decisions that may impact the group. An even better leader gets to know her team member's likes and dislikes, and gives each member a chance to get to know her. Going in with guns blazing ready to lay down the law begets resistance and animosity. In their book, Extreme Trust, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers write "The more distant we are from a person (physically, emotionally, or socially), the easier it is to ignore that person's feelings."
Establish Clear Roles
All adult meerkats--male and female--pitch in to help educate the young in hunting and survival techniques. Delila and Matilda are the main foragers. The pups, Starsky and Hutch, stay close to the burrow to learn and play. Nothing is more frustrating for a team member than trying to figure out what it is he's supposed to be doing. A lack of clear and concise direction often results in confusion and duplicated efforts. Don't give an assignment, and then hover or micromanage. Have confidence in your team members to deliver the goods. If you don't think they can accomplish what you've asked, then maybe you should reevaluate the team dynamics. It might just be that you've assigned the wrong tasks to the wrong individuals. Also, dishing out assignments that are doomed from the start or don't play to one's strengths is basically setting him up for failure. Don't get me wrong--learning a new skill is great, but don't expect perfection right out of the gate.
Communicate via Your Good Side
Meerkats communicate by sound, body language, and scent. They make specific calls for recruitment, warnings, panicking, moving, and bonding. Sending the wrong signal at the wrong time can put a meerkat gang in jeopardy. One frequently touted frustration of teams is a lack of communication. Poor communication skills cause uncertainty and diminishes team moral. Conversely, over-communication can have the same effect. When you do get together for a team chat, focus on the issues that really matter and don't waste precious time bickering about nonsense. In her book, Winning From Within, Erica Ariel Cox recalls a client example: "In meetings, I sometimes lead with 'Good Andrew," and sometimes with the 'Bad Andrew.' 'Bad Andrew' did things like lose his temper, cut people off, or blame and shame members of the team. 'Good Andrew' listened to people, gave them the benefit of the doubt, and instilled hope and energy into the team."
Forage and Play
In the first few hours of dawn and just before sunset is when you'll find the Gosa Gang foraging. Matimba and Delila, siblings in the show, are the best at finding opportunities. They are eager to venture out and bring back a flavorsome scorpion or a crunchy beetle and often score enough goodies for the entire team. Meerkats are very curious which fosters a keen awareness of new things in their environment. Giving team members the opportunity to sniff out new options, tools, and processes, and then bring little morsels of information back to the team can be a huge boon for not only the team but also the enterprise. Don't become complacent; there's a whole new world out there, so give your team space and time to explore.
All work and no play is unhealthy. Playtime boosts camaraderie, so be creative with it. It's extremely enlightening for the team to kick back together every now and then. Sometimes a simple retreat from the work environment to a more relaxed setting can help emulsify a team. In fact, research at California State University Long Beach found that people who have fun at work are more creative, more productive, work better with others, and call in sick less often.
Stay Vigilant and Listen
Meerkats are remarkably alert. Gandolph, the main sentry, stands high above the ground to scout for predators while the others forage. We may not be able to smell predators and opportunities, but in an age when so much information is at our fingertips it shouldn't be too hard to keep an ear to the ground. Not only must teams listen to what's going on around them, they must also listen to each other. Some of us hear but don't really listen. It only takes a moment to consider what someone has said, acknowledge it, and then work at understanding his point of view. Nixing or ignoring an idea or thought--good or bad--makes team members feel diminutive and insignificant.
"Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success." --Henry Ford
About the author:
Vanessa Saulsberry is Senior Project Manager, Marketing and Client Delivery, at 1to1 Media