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Hold that Tiger! An Animal Trainer's Tips on Managing Your Team

Have you ever chaired a meeting where you felt like a lion tamer without a whip and chair? Most team breakdowns occur because of a lack of communication; the team members simply stop listening to each other. Instead of working collaboratively to achieve the teams goals, participants instead remain committed to their individual agendas, to the detriment of the group’s overall mission.

As a management consultant and an animal trainer, I’ve found that team leaders and participants can learn a lot from professional animal trainers. Here are some of their strategies for achieving harmony:
  • Remain calm
    When you’re dealing with large animals, like a 300-pound tiger, you must stay relaxed and composed, no matter how the animal behaves toward you. Showing nervousness can cost you your life. In business, you risk your job, or possibly the whole company’s reputation, if you lose your cool. At the very least, you risk losing control of the meeting and losing the respect of your peers and superiors.

    When things get heated, you need to solve problems in a rational, focused manner, rather than letting them escalate further out of control. First, remind the group of the reasons they were brought together. Be firm that each person must take on the responsibility of remaining calm and staying focused on the issue at hand. Then, keep the group focused while acknowledging and respecting whatever has driven the team off course. Calmly and quietly say, “I understand XYZ is a significant issue, and we will be sure to address XYZ later in the meeting. Let’s finish talking about ABC right now so we can get to XYZ as soon as possible.”
  • Maintain routine
    Tigers, like people, love consistency; they eat, sleep, play and learn at generally the same times every day. Like animals, we are creatures of habit who function better when we can anticipate what’s next. Knowing what to expect and when to expect it makes us feel safe. Especially if we’re in conflict with our team members, routine will comfort and calm us.

    Establish proper protocols from the project’s or meeting’s beginning and follow them so that everyone’s expectations are the same and each individual knows what his or her role is on the team. Ensure that lines of communication within the team are clear and implement back-up systems as necessary to ensure that routine can be followed to the greatest extent possible.
  • Be patient
    Animal trainers recognize that each animal learns at its own pace; some catch on extremely quickly, while others learn more slowly. Teaching certain behaviors takes a long time, and the trainer must remain tolerant and flexible, trying new approaches as necessary to accomplish the needed results.

    On your human team, you must allow enough time to accomplish the business at hand without rushing slower team members. The team will be more effective with sufficient time to accomplish the work, and you will achieve more buy-in from all members. Because each team member has his or her own areas of expertise, individuals will also have their own issues that need to be addressed. Be indulgent and let each team member take the time he or she needs to effectively present their concerns.
  • Anticipate and plan
    Trainers know they must stay one step ahead of their tigers. When working with large, dangerous animals, trainers know that must always have an escape plan in mind, should the worst-case scenario become a reality. Given the issues you’re working on, what things are likely to happen? What could happen that might be less likely but is still a possibility? Anticipate as much as possible any road blocks to success that might arise.
  • Respect personal issues
    Male tigers, especially, are territorial and may not necessarily like to be near each other. If they’re having a particularly bad day, the trainer can tell and will probably choose another time to work with them. Exotic animal trainers must respect the tigers’ personal issues about territory and space, and you should do the same with your team.

    Respect all team members for what they bring to the table, as this understanding will keep the atmosphere of the meeting less negative and aggressive. The team members must simply agree not to get in each other’s faces! Even when they disagree with one another, or confront inevitable differences in personal preferences, personality, style and views, they must all respect and recognize the value of each individual to the team.
  • Behavior breeds behavior
    If a trainer is foolish enough to be aggressive toward an animal, the animal may respond aggressively toward the trainer. Likewise, within a team, the way you approach someone determines how he or she reacts to you. Be aware of your behavior, tone of voice, body language and any latent hostility that might influence others’ behavior negatively. Approach everyone with a professional attitude. The Golden Rule holds true: If you want people to be nice to you, you have to be nice to them.
  • Taking One for the Team
    Some tigers don’t work out in one performance group but may excel in another group. And there may be rare occasions when a tiger goes into a retirement program or a sanctuary because its personality is just too aggressive. You shouldn’t literally have to put any team members out to pasture, but depending on the situation, if a single individual is keeping the team from performing, eliminating him or her from the team could be the right thing to do.

If you try all of these techniques and share them with other team members, chances are good that your group will be more productive and effective and, therefore, generally happier. But what if you feel you’re doing everything “right,” and the team still refuses to work together? Keep in mind that sometimes the team simply may have to disband and re-form with new members.

But more likely, by implementing these team-building tips in your organization, you’ll quickly find that your group accomplishes more in less time. Everyone will shine, as will the organization’s bottom line.