Do You Have "Killer Whales" In Your Organization?

On Wednesday, February 24th, 2010, Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau was dragged into the water and killed by one of the Orcas she worked with every day.

Sad for sure. A total surprise? Hardly.

Even Columbus’ own Jack Hanna was quoted by CNN saying, “What happened is something that happens; it happens in our line of work. They are dangerous animals; they’re wild animals.” 

“Killer whales.” Despite their seemingly playful flips, tricks, and “personality,” these are dangerous and deadly wild animals. One look at their teeth should give you a clue. That’s not a “Nice to see you” smile. It’s more like a gigantic white neon sign that warns you to “keep your distance or I’ll eat you…and your little dog, too.”

I’m not here to defend animal rights or the capitalistic rights of Sea World. I am here, however, to defend logic and common sense.

What baffles me is that Tillikum, the whale that did the killing, is a 3-time offender. Dawn was the third human “accidentally” killed by this creature.

What baffles me even more is that we are so horrified by an amusement park tragedy, yet we fail to see (or fail to act) on the “killer whales” that swim through our own organizations.

Does your organization have any “killer whales”?

I’m talking about those people who just seem to create damage everywhere they go. Maybe it’s through a chronically negative attitude, or gossip, or laziness, or spreading “victim mentality.” Killer whales in companies have also been known to be brown-nosers, ladder climbers, big talkers, and otherwise selfishly ambitious snakes (oops, sorry, we were talking about whales, not snakes, weren’t we?).

I recently worked with a company that has a killer whale that will literally go from office to office complaining about the latest injustice handed down from “the man.” He’ll close the door and act like he’s talking in confidence to each person, but within minutes he’s on to the next office, creating a destructive wake behind him.

Sea World should probably release Tillikum. Just like your organization should probably release its killer whales.

Sea World is reluctant to release whales into the wild because after living in captivity, their street fighting skills are pretty rusty. Many don’t survive too long. Even that whale from the Free Willy movie was dead within 18 months after being released. Kind of a bummer for him since they can live to be 35.

And we can’t ignore the fact that these beasts cost cost about $2 million. That’s a lot of money to toss back into the ocean.

We keep our killer whales for some of the same reasons, though, don’t we? Sometimes we honestly feel it’s better to keep them than to release them into the corporate ocean. We pretend that we’re being good human beings by giving them another chance. Then another. Then another. Then another.

Or we feel like we need them. If we let them go, it will be hard to replace them. Maybe they’re big revenue generators for our company. Maybe we’ve invested a lot of time and money training them and we don’t want that to go to waste.

My favorite excuse (meaning the one I’ve used the most myself) for keeping a killer whale: “I just don’t have time to deal with it right now.”

But that killer whale is, well, killing your company. Maybe not all in one bite, but certainly one bite at a time. That’s probably worse because by the time you feel the damage they’ve caused, it’s pretty significant.

Here’s the good news. When you release a killer whale, you organization changes immediately. The wave of relief is felt instantly by everyone. Positivity starts flowing back in. The stress and tension the killer whale was causing quickly dissolves. And all those things you were worried about (replacing them, training someone new, losing revenue, etc.) really don’t seem quite as horrible as they did when the killer whale was swimming around. If you’re interested in seeing some whales that aren’t killer whales san diego whale watching always provide a lovely safe trip to see some beautiful whales.

Are there killer whales that can be rehabilitated? Probably. Setting clear behavioral expectations and providing solid coaching can work wonders on some. This isn’t a process that should take years, though. A few months, tops. You usually know pretty quickly if someone is willing and able to change.

That said, you and I both know that sometimes those killer whales have just got to go. Sooner than later. Much, much sooner than later. Honestly, if you have one of those people, it should be on the top of your to-do list. In fact, it should BE your to-do list. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Take care of it. 

One final thought. I hope you noticed that I never used the word “terminate.” I don’t think Tillikum should be destroyed. I think he should be given a fighting chance, but outside the walls of Sea World. I don’t think you should destroy your killer whales, either. They should get a fighting chance, too, but outside your walls. Treat them with respect, help them make the transition, and wish them well. They’ll survive and, more importantly, so will you. 


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