Consider the piranha.
According to Smithsonian.com, “A typical piranha diet consists of insects, fish, crustaceans, worms, carrion, seeds and other plant material. A red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri), for example, eats about 2.46 grams per day—about one-eighth of its average body mass.”
But in our KJR Bestiary we’re embracing post-factualism. We don’t care about what piranhas really eat, and how much of it. The Piranha of our bestiary is the one the locals conned Teddy Roosevelt into believing in. The one Hollywood makes movies about. The one that, hunting in large, vicious schools, can eat a human alive in a couple of minutes.
Do you work with Piranhas?
I was tempted to call these colleagues ducks, as in “pecked to death by ducks,” but somehow even the most intimidating mallards just don’t seem to inspire the proper level of fear and revulsion.
So Piranhas it is — those colleagues who individually lack even the force of character to backstab their unlucky victims, but who in large groups can shred a fellow employee’s reputation and self-esteem, one small bite at a time.
Office Piranhas receive no obvious benefit from their nastiness. Benefit, though, isn’t really the point.
Unlike Howler Monkeys and quite a few other species too, Piranhas don’t see their world as a pecking order into which they have to establish their level, where the higher up they are the more benefit flows their way.
Piranhas, along with no shortage of other beasts, have a simpler ranking system: their world consists of friends and enemies, with no one in between.
The difference between Piranhas and those other friends-and-enemies beasts is the difference between I and we.
If you’re my enemy it’s singular. Whether I simply see you as someone who’s standing in my way or I see you as a bad person who must be stopped for the greater good, you’re my enemy.
Not so for Piranhas. Piranha-ism is all about group identity. So far as I can tell, Piranhas see themselves as MOS’s … Members of School, just like their aqueous namesakes.
That is, they divide the world into us and them. And if you’re them you’re the enemy, deserving everything bad we can dish out.
Piranhas also understand just how small they are compared to their enemies, which is why they hide in dark water and only attack when their prey is at its most vulnerable.
All of this is also why Piranhas prize loyalty above all other virtues. “Be true to your school” is what matters most (I couldn’t help myself). It’s a zero-sum game, which means helping anyone who isn’t an MOS is, in the end, doing us harm.
As mentioned before, Piranhas’ targets are self-esteem and reputation. Dealing with the self-esteem part isn’t at all hard. This is mostly a matter of the Piranhas trying to establish themselves as the Cool Kids Club, and all you have to do to avoid taking damage is to want, as urgently, desperately, and visibly as possible, to never be a member or to be mistaken for one.
When interacting with Piranhas at this level, eye rolls and sour smiles are, unlike the scaly ones, your friend.
The reputation part is a harder nut to crack because there’s nothing for you to sink your teeth into, unlike the Piranhas, who can sink theirs into you. That is, since no single action on the Piranhas part even rises to the hard-to-counter level of backstabbing, there’s little you can do to address each of their little nibbles.
What you can do is recognize that metaphors won’t help you solve this. As with backstabbing, your best recourse when others are trying to harm your reputation is to have a strong personal network — a wide range of associates who recognize your integrity, competence, and value, and who, on top of that, consider you to be part of their we.
Piranhas who try to overcome a barrier this strong will find themselves left high and dry.
* * *
The invitation is still open: Send me your species and join the KJR Cool Kids Club. What I’d like from you are:
- Species: A type of bad leader or manager, associated with an unpleasant creature, whether alive, extinct, or mythical. I’ll also consider unpleasant ecosystems if you come up with a nasty organization type instead.
- Root Cause: What you think leads to the character flaws you’re describing.
- Solution: What, in your personal experience, works to help an employee survive unscathed and without being mutated in the process.
- Permission: This includes permission to give you credit for the idea, if you’d like that, or instructions not to. It also includes permission to use your ideas intact, or to modify both your thoughts and your writing as I see fit. Please don’t take offense if I do. Even if I like your writing that doesn’t mean it fits KJR. And if I disagree with your thinking … well, my name will be on the final result. I’ll do my best to give proper credit without burdening your good name with my opinions.