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The Aardvark Principle

by Stephen R. Balzac

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In any business, information can be thought of as the organizational equivalent of nerve impulses. Information about the state of the company, the state of the economy, the marketplace, how different parts of the company are functioning, and so forth, is critical to effective decision making. If any aspect of information flow is interrupted, it is like losing sensation in a part of your body: unable to feel, you may suffer serious injury without realizing it; if the nerves are unable to innervate muscles, those muscles will atrophy and not perform when called upon. By the same token, a business failing to receive crucial information about the state of the market can suffer financial disaster when products don’t sell or when innovation and productivity are crippled.

The problem with information flow is that people may not agree on the information, on the meaning of the information, or what should be done with or about the information. Disagreement leads, in turn, to argument or intra-organizational conflict.

Most businesses are understandably leery of conflict. Conflict can sound the death-knell for a company. Many businesses deal with conflict, whether between teams or between members of a team, by suppressing it: “We’re all professionals here,” is a common line used to halt a potential conflict before it begins.

This creates a problem. Because it is virtually impossible to have information flow without conflict, the lack of conflict can impede the flow of information. At the same time, conflict can also halt the flow of information. A paradox? Not exactly, as there are also situations in which conflict can increase the flow of information. Unfortunately, most businesses opt to avoid conflict, and in the process end up impeding the flow of information, thus killing market-share, productivity, and innovation.

Susan Wheelan, a well-known clinical psychologist, was called in to help a certain multi-billion dollar company that was having severe problems at the top management level. After assessing the situation, she told them, “You have to talk to one another.”

One of the VPs said, “We can’t. We took a Meyers-Briggs, and we’re all introverts.”

Dr. Wheelan replied, “I don’t care if you’re all aardvarks. You have to communicate.”

This is the Aardvark Principle: even if you’re an aardvark, if you are part of a team, you still have to communicate. Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is a tool to transfer information; how that tool is used makes a huge difference. The style of communication establishes a relationship with the other party. Establish the wrong relationship, and the organization can become trapped in non-productive, highly destructive, conflict. Consider the following true story:

The VP of Engineering of a small high-tech startup was welcoming a new employee. He launched into a long spiel about the importance of hard work, how he knew when someone was working and someone wasn’t, how each person had to prove themselves to him, how he knew how to deal with people who didn’t measure up, and so forth. A large man, as he spoke, he stood up from behind his desk and moved over to stand over the employee, a considerably smaller man, and sitting down to boot. The VP ended his talk by drawing himself up to his full height of over six feet, looking down at the employee, and saying, “My hobby is hunting. I have several guns at home. What do you do for fun?”

The engineer looked him in the eye and replied, “I practice martial arts four nights a week.”

The VP visibly deflated, and ended up resigning shortly thereafter.

To some, this may seem like a happy ending, filled with a certain sense of poetic justice. Unfortunately, the culture of intimidation and one-upmanship that the VP created persisted long after his departure, pervading the employees’ interactions in a variety of subtle and ultimately destructive ways. His legacy was an organization locked in unproductive conflict from the beginning, unable to ever develop an ability to conduct productive conflict.

The key to effective communications and productive conflict is to first build an environment of trust between team members. Although this may seem obvious, sadly, many businesses do not spend the time to do it. In a rush to get started on the project, far too often critical steps are ignored or given short shrift. Other times, well-intentioned managers make serious mistakes either through inexperience or through ignorance of successful team building strategies.

So aside from obvious behaviors like those in the prior example, what are some do’s and don’ts for developing effective communications and productive conflict? Many of the items on “don’t” list are, unfortunately, common practice in many businesses or are advocated by facilitators or consultants, often with disastrous results. That said, drawing on work by Susan Wheelan and MIT’s Ed Schein, we’ll start with our “Don’t” list:

•Don’t get wrapped up in attempting to deal with interpersonal issues or relationships amongst your team. Recognize that part of team development is learning to work together and accept one another’s styles of working. Likewise,
•Avoid emotional issues, assigning blame, or forcing people to lose face. These things only reduce group participation and initiative. When something goes wrong, evaluate and adjust, not judge and punish.
•Never seek to lead through fear or intimidation. Fearful teams are not innovative, highly productive teams. Anyone will work when there’s a gun to their head, but slaves are not known for their creativity.

Moving to the “Do” side:

•Create a vivid picture of the desired outcome and communicate it to your staff enthusiastically and often.
•Make sure goals are clear, effective, and that everyone buys into them.
•Provide timely and specific feedback. “Six months ago, you really screwed up,” is neither.
•Clearly define the roles each person will need to fill and provide flexibility for people to change roles as the team develops.
•Educate the team on what normal team development looks like. Don’t try to fix problems that aren’t.
•Train leaders and members to work together: the captain of the Red Sox always trains with his team.

What are you doing to build trust in your team?

About the Author
Stephen R. Balzac is a consultant and professional speaker. He is the president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses dramatically increase revenue and build their client base.

Steve has over twenty years of experience in the high tech industry as an engineer, manager, entrepreneur, and consultant. He led the development of numerous predictive scenarios, including a Pandemic Flu serious game simulation for the US National Capitol Region. He has been a guest lecturer at WPI and MIT. His articles have appeared in many journals, including FreudTV, CEO Refresher, The Journal of Interactive Drama, The IBM Systems Journal, The Lincoln Journal, Mass High Tech, Analog (in press), Black Belt Magazine (in press), and the Worcester Business Journal. He blogs as “The Business Sensei,” has spoken at a variety of events, including Infotec, SENG, NECGT, and BIQ, and has conducted online seminars through the Davidson Institute.

No stranger to the demands of maintaining peak performance under highly competitive and stressful situations, Steve is a fourth degree blackbelt in jujitsu and a former nationally ranked fencer. He works with businesses from the Fortune 500 to individuals trying to make a fortune. Please contact Steve at (978) 298-5189 or For more information, please visit

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