Eight to Late

To freeze or to flee: a water dragon’s perspective on managing change

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Over the last few weeks, it has been raining quite a bit in Sydney. Last weekend I took advantage of a break in the rain and went bushwalking in the Lane Cove National Park with a friend.  The park lies along the Lane Cove River – a picturesque little waterway that runs through suburban Sydney.  The track we walked along was a bit slippery from the rain of the previous weeks but was drying out nicely in the morning sun.

One of the consequences of sunny weather after a long spell of rain is that reptiles tend to seek open spaces to soak in some sun.  With dense vegetation on either side, the open, rocky areas on the track were inviting spots for reptiles looking to sunbathe. I thought we might see snake or two but we didn’t. Instead we walked into a number of  Eastern Water Dragons,   semi-aquatic  lizards that are common in eastern Australia (see Figure 1). Incidentally, fully-grown water dragons are a pretty impressive sight, growing up to a metre in length. They are also quite well camouflaged,   black stripes over a grey-brown coat that merges nicely with the rock-and-mud colours of the track.

Figure 1 - Eastern water dragon

When a water dragon sunbathes, it stays still, rock-like, for long periods of time. This makes sense from a safety perspective:  motion might attract the attention of predators (mainly omnivorous native birds such as Currawongs and Kookaburras).  So the reptile remains statue-like, perfectly camouflaged by colours that merge with the ground it lies on…until a blundering bushwalker disturbs its repose, like we did many times (to many lizards) last weekend.  At that point the creature has two options: to freeze (maintain the status quo) or to flee (turn tail and scuttle off).

The water dragon senses approaching bushwalkers by the disturbance caused by their footfalls along the trail, further amplified by the crackling of leaves and brush that come underfoot.  To the water dragon, the approaching footfalls signify an unknown:  it could be benign but could also be a predator on the prowl. It is safest to assume the latter because if the lizard chooses the former wrongly it could end up dead.  However, even if it is a predator, it is quite possible that the lizards’s superb camouflage will do its job and render it unnoticeable.  (Besides, it is comfortable out there in the sun, so there’s an understandable reluctance to move.) Consequently, the first reaction of the lizard is to continue its statue-like stance, but remain alert to the danger. As the footsteps get closer it reassesses the situation continually, deciding whether to run for it or stay put. At some point, a threshold is reached and the lizard dashes off into the undergrowth (or a stream, if there’s one handy – water dragons are good swimmers).

Now, if there were no blundering bushwalker, the dragon would presumably continue basking in the sun undisturbed. The bushwalker changes the lizard’s environment and the lizard reacts to this change in one of the two ways it knows – it stays put (does nothing) or runs (takes evasive action).  Both actions are aimed at self-preservation – we can take it as given that the lizard does not want to be a lizard-eater’s lunch!  The first action has the benefit of not expending energy unnecessarily, but could lead to an unpleasant end. The second is a better guarantor of safety but involves some effort. There is a tradeoff:  not becoming lunch involves understanding that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

The interesting thing is that the threshold seems to vary from dragon to dragon. When I used the phrase “walking into” earlier in this piece, I meant it quite literally: many times we didn’t notice a recumbent reptile until we were almost upon it. At other times, though, a startled slinker would speed off when we were several metres away.  It seems some water dragons scare easily while others don’t. In either case, the lizard makes an assessment of the situation based on the information gleaned through its senses and then decides on a course of action.

These musings got me thinking about workplace change and our reactions to it. Although such changes are rarely life threatening, they can be unsettling.   I thought it interesting that the most typical reactions to workplace change are much like those of a water dragon to approaching footsteps. Many (most?) people is to attempt to maintain the status quo and failing that, they quit for (supposedly) greener pastures. This is a perfectly normal reaction considering our evolutionary heritage – most creatures (be they water dragons or humans) prefer the familiar and will do what they can to avoid change.  It is no surprise, then, that our first reactions to changes forced upon us is to:

  1. Pretend they haven’t occurred or
  2. Run away from them.

The implications for management are the following: since the above is pretty much a guaranteed first reaction from those affected, change management initiatives need to address it upfront.  This isn’t the same as the “what’s in it for me” (or WIIFM)  factor – it is more basic than that – it is the loss of the familiar world. What is needed is reassurance that the changes are benign – or even better, beneficial – to those affected.  On the other hand, if there are going to be negative consequences, then it is best to state – early in the process – that people’s work conditions (or employment) are under threat. In this case folks know exactly what’s coming and can make their own plans to deal with it. Unfortunately, this kind of honesty is rare – organisations seem to prefer to keep their employees stumbling around in a fog of uncertainty.

The implication for employees is much more straightforward. There is a key difference between humans and water dragons: we can think before we act, water dragons can’t.  Consequently, we have a third option available to us, one that involves neither freezing nor fleeing – it is to face up to changes and adapt to them.

Written by K

January 13, 2011 at 4:22 am

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