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The bestiary returns: Prairie Chicken Management

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It’s time to talk about prairie chickens and how to cope with them. From the archives, 1996 vintage:

In graduate school, while I monitored electric fish, my friend Henry McDermott watched prairie chickens mate.

For years.

Male prairie chickens congregate in an area the size of a suburban lawn called a “lek.” The highest-status male grabs a territory the size of a kitchen table in the middle. The others array themselves outward from there, in larger but more peripheral chunks of turf, and they all do the prairie chicken dance. Female prairie chickens then wander through the lek, with most mating with the central male. Success declines with distance from the middle. It’s disco among wildfowl.

Biologists erroneously figured the biggest, meanest male owned the middle. Henry discovered something different: over the years, those males who survive drift to the middle. It’s a seniority system.

In the case of real prairie chickens, the senior birds are the ones that managed to not die of disease or be eaten by hawks and owls. But we’re more interested in Prairie Chicken Managers — the ones who, over the course of their careers, have drifted up the organizational chart because they were safe, inoffensive choices.

They’re the ones, that is, who managed to avoid being nailed by the organization’s political predators — something most easily achieved by treating all but the safest and least-controversial decisions as rabid weasels — creatures to be avoided at all costs.

Left to their own devices, Prairie Chicken managers are likeable enough. But they can be frustrating and dangerous if you need them to stick their necks out on your behalf, as when, for example, you find yourself managing a project and Something happens. Because while not all Somethings have an impact on budget, deadlines, scope, or risk, there are plenty that do.

When they do, you need a business sponsor willing to commit to the best course of action and to put his/her name on it. That isn’t in a Prairie Chicken’s nature.

Root Causes: Prairie Chickenism is a two-level affair. At the individual level, Prairie Chickens are what they are because they have both a heightened sense of self-interest, and an approach to personal cost-benefit analysis that emphasizes downside avoidance over upside opportunity.

While they might understand that from the organization’s perspective, playing it safe often isn’t particularly safe, that doesn’t matter as much as their understanding that from their personal perspective, playing it safe is much, much safer.

But that’s just the first-level root cause analysis of Prairie Chickenism. It’s the next level you need to master if you want to deal with these fowl managers effectively: Prairie Chickens are not found in isolation. They flock: When management positions open up, Prairie Chicken managers will generally promote other Prairie Chickens to fill them.

So you aren’t just dealing with a Prairie Chicken. You’re dealing with a Prairie Chicken culture.

Dealing with a Prairie Chicken manager: Well this one’s easy. So long as you don’t do anything to attract the attention of potential organizational predators … so long as you don’t do something your manager might consider risky … you’re in a safe situation from which to build your internal network of potentially helpful interpersonal relationships.

Take advantage of it. Establish the reputation you want among the people you want it with.

Then, when you decide you’ve had enough safety and are ready to try something more adventurous, you’ll know who to call. And, just as important, they’ll be willing to answer when you do.

Living in a Prairie Chicken society: Odds are, though, that if you’re dealing with a Prairie Chicken manager, you won’t be able to build relationships with other managers who aren’t Prairie Chickens, because there aren’t any.

It’s play-it-safe-ism from top to bottom.

What to do?

First and foremost, get it out of your head that there’s anything you can do to fix the situation. Nobody is going to have any interest in any thoughts you might have on the subject, because they already understand the path to success, and it isn’t yours.

Which wouldn’t be all that bad, other than having to live with your daily dose of boredom, except for one sticky little challenge: In the long run, for any business, playing it safe really isn’t safe.

So in the short term take advantage of the situation to build skills that will be attractive in the employment marketplace.

Because the main thing you need to do is plan your escape, because living among Prairie Chickens is a risky business.

Not in the sense of your employment being on shaky ground, because it isn’t.

No, at the risk of violating the metaphor, the risk, when living among Prairie Chickens, is that the syndrome is contagious.

And once you’ve caught a case of Prairie Chickenism, there’s no known cure.

Comments (5)

  • I’m actually a bit disappointed in this article. Prairie chickenism is real and your advice is good, but I was really hoping you’d comment on the ransomware pandemic. There are so many lessons to be learned there.

    • Rest assured, if I find something useful to say about the recent ransomware attack that hasn’t already been said by commentators far more knowledgeable than myself, I’ll say it. Right now I’m just trying to get my arms around what happened and the implications.

  • This is an absolutely timeless article as true today as ever. Unfortunately it will still be true twenty years from now. The recommendation to ultimately leave is really the only answer once the contagion among managers reaches critical mass.

  • Best column yet! You are correct – it was worth a re-run. US Federal government is a great example of PraireChickenIsm.

  • Perhaps one of the most common ‘beasts’ you’ve described so far! Their likeability and general functional competence makes them initially seem like great team players and all around good employee.. (Did you see the book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming?of?Age Crisis??and How to Rebuild by Benjamin E. Sasse – looks at a whole generation plus that get older but don’t grow up- many more Prairie Chickens in the workplace)

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