In my childhood I was quite obsessed with breeding fish. My house was full of fish tanks and in that process I spent many hours observing them. I noted that there were quite a lot of similarities between fish and the human species! An interesting area of such similarity was the way they treated a new entrant into the aquarium and how an intelligent system of acclimatization was key to the survival of the fish. Here are my thoughts on what we can learn from them, and how we can use some of these tools to make our induction processes a success.
Here comes a new fish!
Whenever I brought a new fish to add to my collection, at first I placed the entire plastic bag in which it was bought, into the fish tank. This contained the water that it was used to.
Often when we begin the induction process we don’t pause to consider the differences of culture, personality or previous experiences of both the new hire and the team he/she is going to be a part of.
The see-through plastic bag enables the fish to see and partially interact with other fish in the tank, within a protective cover. It also gives the fish some time to get accustomed to the new temperature, light etc.. This is the kind of comfort level that a new hire would require when he joins the company; he needs to be given some time and space before he can get into the real action. On an average a new hire takes one or two months or even more to really get used to the process, policy and procedures in a new company. Especially if the employee has moved to a new city, he might take even more time to settle down. Often we baptize people with fire and have them start work in a week’s time or even earlier. This does not give an employee adequate time to get accustomed to the new environment, especially if the employee is also an introvert.
While the new fish was still in the cover, I would have to make sure that it had enough oxygen to survive the 30 minutes of enclosure inside the cover. The new hire needs a fresh bit of positive assurance and reinforcement in the first few weeks, given that he has come to a territory that is new and also might struggle with so many questions about the decisions he has made. Giving encouragement boosts his energy levels and makes the employee feel welcome. A healthy sense of belonging prevails.
Releasing the fish into the tank:
When I finally released the fish into the tank I needed to make sure that I tilted the cover in such a way that the fish did not get stuck inside the plastic cover and also at the same time, did not feel that he was being pushed/ dumped into the water all of sudden.
Often the problem with some good managers is that they set low expectations and suddenly struggle with the employees output, or others set the bar so high at the beginning that the new hire gets discouraged with consistently failing to achieve the goal.
Every time the employee achieves a certain goal, the bar has to be raised gradually. Managers often forget that the new hire has to learn the technology, the process, the team structure, and dynamics etc. all at the same time. Some employees who are like the guppies, sword tails, and the black molly get accustomed to the environment and its challenges immediately with ease, however, there are employees who are like the angel fish, blue horn, and the butterfly fish who need to be in specific conditions for them to think and act and survive - they also need some monitoring and guidance on a regular basis.
If I wanted my fish to survive and co-exist, I would need to think very carefully about the dynamics between different species before I placed them all in the same tank. Unfortunately, things can go wrong even in a well-planned community. That’s just the way it is. In nature, the strong dominate the weak; bullies torment the gentle; and many species simply view others as fish food. Even a peaceful species can have the occasional ‘criminal’ individual.
It’s strange but true that though some fish are of different varieties they can stay together without much problem; however, there have been times when I had to conduct a mass burial after I accidentally put the wrong variety along with a peaceful community!!
Do we really know if the new hire is a Siamese fighter who is going into a tank full of goldfish or vice versa?
I have observed an entire team breaking up because the new hire was a Manager who did not have a direct technology experience and he was at the mercy of his ‘fighter fish’ team.
So, what makes a fish fight? It shouldn’t surprise you that fish fight over the same things that people do: food, mates, and territory.
Most aggression in the aquarium occurs over territory. Many species swim wherever they want and are fancy-free. They go where the current takes them; but others like to stake a claim to a certain area and call it home. It depends on the reaction of the encroacher. If it is merely a neighbor wandering by, a gentle threat display or chase will drive it away. However, if the encroacher is a fish looking to take over the territory or steal a mate, a more fierce battle may ensue to determine if the current owner stays or goes.
How often does a new hire struggle to understand what his responsibilities are? How often are the team members in the dark as to what the new hire is responsible for?
When the teams are full of goldfish then there is no need to worry. It’s when there is a mixed variety and especially if you know there are ‘Siamese fighters’ in your tank, you need to be extra careful to draw the lines.
If the steps that were suggested earlier fail, then you may have no choice but to separate the opponents when the fish fight. The first decision you will have to make is which fish to move. It’s a judgment call. Most hobbyists move the fish receiving the most injuries in order to protect it. If the injuries were severe, I would have no other choice because the injured fish becomes a target. All the fish start to join in, taking nips at wounds and causing further damage. However, if the injuries are minor, like if it’s only a nick on its tail, then removing the victim is usually the wrong choice; it rewards the bully’s behavior, and the intimidator is likely to focus on its next victim. The bully remains at the top of the pecking order.
We need to identify the bully or the problem creator in the team. It’s not the physical wounds, it’s the emotional scars and mental stress caused by these bullies that eats up all the positive synergy in a team. As most of us believe that partnering with others is one of the key pillars for an organization to succeed, this kind of behavior that is against organizational values has to be nipped in the bud.
Sometimes I used the net breeder to isolate a slightly wounded fish so that it could heal without further injury. This has the advantage of letting the other fish see and smell the fish, so it won’t be viewed as a newcomer when reintroduced to the aquarium. I also used aquarium dividers to separate some fish.
I leave the above to be translated creatively by the Manager or HR to devise ways to protect an injured ‘fish’ and reintroduce him back into the team. They could also isolate the ‘bully fish’ or give him no food (reward).
Responsible fish keeping is based on seeking, learning, developing and promoting awareness of these conditions and procedures, such that our practice of the hobby does not occur at the expense of our pets' well being, nor in detriment to the ecosystem.
Whatever the size of the organization, what happens on the first day at work makes a big impression. HR is in the perfect position to help. We know how important it is for all new hires to absorb and live out the characteristics of professional excellence that our organization has defined—which are used throughout the entire life cycle, from interviewing and hiring, to performance evaluation and growth, to (on rare occasions) corrective action and termination. Helping the Managers build these characteristics into a sustained induction program is one of the most important things we can do to help retain, support, and develop the new hires through an excellent induction process.