A Management Bestiary, Part II


Piranhas try to kill you one small bite at a time. To survive them remember, there’s strength in numbers for you, too.

By Bob Lewis | January 10, 2017
Topics: Career Management, Leadership, NewPost, Office Politics


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:

6 Responses to “A Management Bestiary, Part II”

  1. BBJ says:

    To further the analogy:

    Like a lot of piranha, nattereri have two instructive traits: First, while they’re aggressive and vicious in schools, they’re timid individually or in very small groups, and around other fish their own size, may starve because they’re too timid to come out and compete for food. Second, in large schools, when they are attacking something en masse, and competition for a piece is intense, they can become so engrossed in their own attack that they don’t notice other predators attacking their own school, and they become the prey.

  2. Ed Paquette says:

    Bob – have read and loved your column since the printed InfoWorld days.

    Thought of a species you no doubt are familiar with:

    Remora (aka suckerfish). In this case, YOU’RE the shark, and they latch on to you and ride a project to completion/success, all along adding little to no value. But rest assured, they’ll be there when it’s time for the kudos/awards/attaboys.

    Root cause is varied: laziness, inexperience, lack of knowledge, or a combination of the above.

    Solution: I’m still working on it in some cases, but the best I’ve come up with so far, is to make (and publish via email to all on project, and supervisors) a project task list with specific peoples names assigned to each (rather than a group name followed by a list of tasks).

    Remoras can be difficult to remove, and they can leave a mark… 🙂

  3. Dave says:

    I’ll add another species Bob:

    Cuttlefish – might be called tactical deception, as these fish sometimes present entirely different displays to two different observers. When a male cuttlefish courts a female in the presence of other males, he displays a male pattern facing the female (courtship), and a female pattern facing away, to deceive other males

    This is the classic two faced leader who has a different answer depending on who they are talking to and ultimately deceive. They also rarely remember who they told what to.

    Solution: Have all parties in a meeting with this person so everyone hears the same thing. Otherwise everyone will be chasing in circles.

    Note these types of creatures have also been spotted in local bars…

  4. Bob Harris says:

    I agree. This is a tough one.

    My guess is that there is someone at the center of this group, a pivotal piranha, who wants to be “the straw that stirs the drink”, and for reasons valid, irresponsible, or even illegal, wants to destroy your brand within the organization, and takes real joy in doing so.

    As I see it, the best case is if the person they see as “the Big Boss” of the organization takes 15 minutes to tell them what they are doing, what happens if the covert promoting they do becomes positive, and the consequences if it continues to be dysfunctional and negative. It’s my sense that the person driving the piranhas wants to feel like he or she could be a trusted confident of the Big Boss, so they may take this feedback to heart, if the Big Boss makes sure to follow up every 3 to 6 months.

    My guess is that, at their core, piranhas are mostly driven by the need for tangible public acknowledgement of their achievements, but their need has become a malignancy within the organization.

    If this pivotal piranha is already one the Big Boss’ confidants, or if the Big Boss is too weak to manage pivotal piranhas, then I would seriously question whether that organization is an appropriate career destination. Which, in turn, asks the question of how long you feel your personal network can maintain sufficient strength to neutralize or overcome the mentally unhealthy behavior of the piranhas.

  5. Sara Wasserman says:

    Piranhas sound like middle school.

    They’re driven by fear – no one wants to be the scapegoat, the person at the bottom of the pecking order, so everybody identifies the one who seems the least socially aware, or the most awkward, or in some way “different” from everyone else; and that person is the designated scapegoat. Then each of the Piranhas can avoid being the one picked on – they don’t have to be afraid for themselves if there’s already an obvious target.

    I just barely survived this in middle school, so I guess my advice would be similar to yours:

    *Cultivate friendships where you can, even if that’s only one or two. One or two strong friendships can be worth more than many superficial ones.

    *Cultivate a productive working relationship with your supervisor and immediate team. Even if you don’t like or respect them, focus on getting the work done.

    *Focus on doing the best work you can – quality and quantity in the ratio your supervisor wants.

    *Network in your field across companies/organizations. Show others in your field that you have value to offer.

    *Cultivate positive relationships outside work – family and friends, the community, your professional network. These can provide you with resiliency, so you can survive any nastiness at work.

    All of the above will also give you self-confidence. It’s hard to peck apart someone whose own relaxed, calm, productive professionalism seems to make them immune to barbs from others.

    Like Howlers, don’t become a Piranha. Not only does it create a vile, bullying atmosphere; it’s also a game that can easily backfire on you. If you embrace your fear by becoming another Piranha, it’s difficult to also embrace your self-confidence in your own work at the same time. Fear can weaken you, reduce your resiliency.