The recent plight of a polar bear called Arturo, stuck in the searing heat of a zoo in Argentina, brought back a vivid memory from my childhood. I’ve only once visited a zoo and the one thing that sticks in my mind is a poor polar bear stuck in a stark enclosure, no more than twenty paces square with no ice and little water. Even a ten year old can spot a mentally ill polar bear, staring forlornly and shaking it’s head over and over in despair.
I guess we would say the purpose of a zoo is so we can experience first hand some of the planets amazing creatures. The health of the animals is paramount, as although these are mostly profit making ventures, nobody wants to see a miserable chimp or depressed zebra. Creating a habitat similar to their natural environment is only the first step. There’s many other variables such as nourishment and companionship that mean they can live a happy life in captivity.
Employees aren’t animals, but their habitat – the right conditions to get the best out of them – is just as important. Yet creating an environment that allows employees not only to survive, but to thrive, is often overlooked. How often have we heard that we need to get out of our comfort zone, shake things up or think outside the box? No doubt the polar bear can think much more clearly at minus forty than plus forty degrees. Should the polar bear be forced to adapt or should we give him what he clearly needs?
I can’t help but think that the office habitat often enables just one species of employee to thrive. Ideas of what creativity, cleverness and other stand our behaviours look like can become very fixed. How we accomplish things is stuck in a endless merry-go-round of brainstorming, meetings and conferences. Employees who try to break out and accomplish things in different ways they know to be effective can be accused of being lazy, anti-social, or worse. A polar bear does not perform better if we convince him he is in fact in the arctic, and not an Argentinian desert.
Thankfully most zoos are honourable in their attempts to model habitats around their exhibited animals. Species flourish in their natural environment and there’s something we can learn from this. Put a range of creatures in a singular habitat and some will thrive, others will struggle on, some will perish almost instantly. Environments need to be flexible to provide for a range of needs.
Like visitors to a zoo, are we just passive observers of the behaviour of others, or do we seek to make changes when there clearly isn’t a fit between employee and environment.
After all, we put the polar bear there in the first place.