Management Matters: Birds Do It—And You Should Too: What Hummingbirds Can Teach About Adaptability

Take a penny and hold it in your hand. That's how much a hummingbird weighs. Its legs are as thin as toothpicks and it beats its wings 80 to 100 times per second. But depending on the situation it's in, this remarkable little bird can hover, move forwards, backwards, sideways, up, or down, with almost no apparent effort. A real marvel of responsiveness.

How adaptive are you? Can you, given the situation you're in, hover, go forwards, backwards, sideways, up, or down? Can you change direction on a moment's notice and alter your behavior to fit current conditions? Here are a few ways to become more responsive to the ever-changing world we live in.

Welcome all things new
Nothing lasts forever. Everything breaks down eventually and morphs into something else. If you hold on too tightly to the people and things in your life—in effect rejecting change—you are bound to be frustrated. But if you expect, or, better yet, welcome change, you are placing yourself squarely in the natural flow of life. Charles Darwin said it best: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."

Create alternatives
When you find yourself caught in a new situation, you have several choices. You can complain about the predicament you're in and feel powerless, get angry about it and lash out, or immediately think about and create options for yourself. By evaluating the pros and cons of alternatives, you will create a new path to follow. There is always more than one right answer to any problem. In fact, your second, third, and fourth choices are almost always better than your first.

Be selective about what you share
Even if you wanted to, you could never tell anyone the whole truth about anything. Because there's so much information that could be shared, you have to be selective. Honesty is always a matter of conditions: Do you have time to tell more? Can the person hear you if you expand? Are you capable of handling the consequences that might come if you give more information? Is it the right time and place? Answers to these questions will tell you whether you should hover, go forwards, backwards, sideways, up, or down, figuratively.

Retreat once in a while
You don't have to deal with everything that comes your way, or win at everything you attempt. There is another option that is increasingly coming into play: the tactical retreat. When the going gets tough and victory is not in the cards, the smart thing to do is to retreat, for now. Give yourself time to reorganize your thoughts, reframe your strategy, and catch your breath. In effect, you choose to take a step or two backwards so you can then go forward at a more opportune time.

If the tiny hummingbird can immediately alter speed and direction, given the situation it's in, we humans should be able to do at least this and probably more. It's all about responding to changing conditions and doing the right thing at the right time.

Dr. Tom McDonald, a Ph.D. in psychology, speaks on "People Skills" needed for "Business Results." Reach him in San Diego at (858) 523-0883 or [email protected] mcdonald.com, or visit www.drtommcdonald.com.

SIDEBAR: The Antidote to Snakebite

Think psychopaths are found only in the movies? Think again. The modern workplace rewards smooth-talking risk-takers, meaning a psychopath could easily be sitting in the next cube or the corner office, say Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, authors of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (HarperCollins, 2006). Here, tips on making sure you don't hire one:

Check résumés. Many people overstate their abilities, but psychopaths make things up: jobs, degrees—even recommendation letters.

Check emotions. Psychopaths often have inappropriate feelings—too shallow or too exaggerated for the situation.

Check with others. Different interviewers can offer different perspectives.