The Organizational Zoo: A Survival Guide to Work Place Behavior

Derek H.T. Walker (Professor of Project Management,Program Director of the Doctor of Project Management,RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 4 April 2008



Walker, D.H.T. (2008), "The Organizational Zoo: A Survival Guide to Work Place Behavior", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 1 No. 2, pp. 296-300.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Leadership and developing teams that perform well is a well accepted and recognised key competence Project Management Institute (PMI, 2007). Substantial yet easily read books that deal with leadership and teams, how to deal with “office politics” and how to optimally choose team members to gain synergy are rare. Pinto (1998) produced an easy to read book on this area a decade ago on power and Project Management (PM) in general and there are many articles on this area that are very valuable for example Müller and Turner (2007). Many of the articles or books tend to either be highly analytical or they are highly specialised about how politics impacts upon a specific aim such as Sense (2003) who looks at the role of politics and influence on learning in PM organisations. This Organizational Zoo book, however, is one of a number that uses an animal metaphor to describe people in teams, or stakeholders, as if they were creatures in a zoo. It does not present itself as an academic text; however, it provides a useful and insightful typology of the characteristics of a range of people encountered in teams and as project stakeholders.

The concept of people being stereotyped through animal characterisation is not new. Briner et al. (1996), for example, use a typology of four animals to describe the perils of organisational politics. A number of negotiation and organisational politics books have used the shark and lamb metaphors to describe people's attitudes or propensity to act in a certain way. Shelley's book goes much further and provides not only keen insights into how to identify the signature characteristics of people in organisations but suggest how to best match their strengths and to obviate any weaknesses so this book steps deftly into the relationship management space. An example describes a lion (Shelley, 2007, pp. 49‐50):

Lions are aggressive and powerful leaders. They rule the pride with an iron paw and immediately and aggressively ward off any challengers. They protect their pride with energy and vigor. In return, all in the pride are subservient to the lion.

Lions declare themselves king of the Zoo, but this is not always reality. They usually just reign as the temporary king of their pride. Challengers are always waiting in the wings in this highly competitive environment. The balance of power is always at risk, being maintained by fear and physical strength. On the day the lion appears vulnerable, a succession challenge is likely. A more youthful lion, if successful, will then rule in the same way until the cycle repeats itself. The first thing a new king does is eat the younger male members of the newly conquered pride to ensure that their own reign lasts longer.

Young male offspring are tolerated in the pride only until they start to become strong enough to be a threat to the lion. They are ejected before they have the confidence to attempt a challenge. These young lions then roam alone or with siblings looking to be new kings in the pride of an aging lion.

As the king, they have others (primarily the lionesses) do much of the hard work for them, but the lion will always feast on a kill first while the rest of the pride wait to feed on the leftovers.

Relating to the Lion:

The lion is a force to be reckoned with. They are powerful, fast and agile beasts very aggressive if you are in their territory. They have a small army of loyal pride members they can rely upon to ambush you and they will not hesitate to do so. This is not out of cruelty. It is just daily business to them, and they do it very well. They are not interested in outsiders joining their pride. They prefer to develop their own members from within.

Be wary of lions and always know where they are and what they are up to (even if you are one yourself). Never put yourself in a vulnerable position with them. If you happen to be unlucky enough to get landed into such a position, prepare as best as you can for an attack and get your sorry butt out of there as quickly as possible.

Lions are great to have in the right places in your Zoo, but they can also be dangerous. In the competitive corporate world, they are essential to fend off challenges from competitors and to command respect from your commercial teams. You just need to be sure they understand who the real competitors are. They sometimes spend more time competing with other lions within your own Zoo, than they do attacking lions from elsewhere.

Lions see themselves as powerful fearful creatures and so do most other creatures around them.

Success for the Lion:

Being in charge and feared. Defeating a challenger.

Attributes often applied to the Lion:

Strong, Powerful, Aggressive, Controlling, Lazy, Self‐interested, Territorial, Manipulative, Confident.

Attributes not often applied to Lions:

Dedicated Hardworking, Caring, Shy.

Success for the Lion:

Being in charge and feared. Defeating a challenger.

Attributes often applied to the Lion:

Strong, Powerful, Aggressive, Controlling, Lazy, Self‐interested, Territorial, Manipulative, Confident.

Attributes not often applied to Lions:

Dedicated Hardworking, Caring, Shy.

Shelley's book identifies one animal with each letter of the alphabet (with z for the entire zoo as the ecology of the organisation itself). Each of the creatures are described in about two pages in terms of its characteristics, how to relate to the creature, what success means to the creature, attributes often applied to the creature and attributes often not applied to the creature. The book has a set of charming hand drawn cartons of each creature (illustrated by John Szabo) in its environment that provides further insight into the organisational environment being described and how the creature is recognised and how it may see itself.

His Part 2 provides interesting insights that are highly valuable to project managers. For example, he offers survival techniques, flourishing techniques and perhaps of most interest to project managers developing teams, he offers suggestions on what a well‐designed zoo may look like.

His Part 3 provides workshop games that are well thought out and are both entertaining and rigorous exercises that cleverly and simply use his text. These games include: creature introductions; attribute ice breaker; network diversity analysis; and business partner analysis. The creature introduction invites participants to describe themselves (or a colleague or an organisation) as an animal and to describe characteristics that support the choice. This is valuable in helping people to reflect upon themselves and their interactions with others and also to think about people's value proposition and motivations. In one example he prompts participant “describe your organization as a creature. Describe why you chose this creature”. He offers a sample answer as:

[…] my organization is a mouse. It is small, but very agile and quick to take advantage of any crumbs that appear in its territory. It cannot compete with the many other larger creatures that it cohabits with. However, it survives well as it keeps a lower profile. Its flexibility and mobility keep it in the main game as an auxiliary player. I feel comfortable here as it is really alive, surviving on both mental and physical agility. Every day is unpredictable, but it is a rewarding challenge and we live at a great pace (Shelley, 2006, p. 130).

He provides a list of 150 attributes used in the creature profiles. While he acknowledges that everyone is an amalgam of several animals (or different animals in response to the environment) he provides a tool that has a great deal of practical application in PM practice. By using his attribute list in a workshop, participants are forced to think about their relationship with others, their assumptions and cultural biases and the diverse value propositions that others share. It also provides a useful training tool for negotiation. The “building a diverse network workshop” exercise is another useful tool that is worth illustrating here. He asks participants to draw a network of interactions in a map that places them at the centre surrounded by an inner circle of frequent interacted people and an outer circle of less frequently interacted individuals. The names and the animal types can then be added and in constructing this map the individual participating in the “game” is encouraged to reflect upon not only the identity of those they share knowledge and information with, but also the nature of the interactions and the power issues and so this helps people produce a cultural map of the organisation from that participant's perspective.

Shelley is by profession a project manager who has managed several global knowledge management initiatives for a global food and beverage producer and is part of the global management group and so his insights and observations are highly relevant and useful.

I find the book an intriguing read and immediately can see its application at a range of levels. I certainly recommend this book as a text to those undertaking a master's course in a variety of disciplines including general management or business, with human resource and project management in particular. It would also be very useful at the undergraduate level though much of it potential may be missed at that level. There are very mature insights to be harvested in this book.

The main weakness of this book is that it does not attempt to link to theoretical models and further readings; however, it could prompt those who would use it for more academic purposes as a motivator to dig deeper into the psychological and workplace relations literature. It is ideal as a supplementary reading and easy to read text that is well worth buying. For practitioners, it is the kind of amusing and engaging book that can be read quickly on a plane or train and kept as a valuable reference for continual referral. Its strength is its subtle engagement that drags you into wanting to think more about the nature of your working “ecology” and environment – it is a powerful reflective learning tool.

As an academic I will be using this as a recommended reading and I will build some of the exercises around the additional resources.


Briner, W., Hastings, C. and Geddes, M. (1996), Project Leadership, 2nd ed., Gower, Aldershot.

Müller, R. and Turner, J.R. (2007), “Matching the project manager's leadership style to project type”, International Journal of Project Management, Vol. 25 No. 1, pp. 2132.

Pinto, J.K. (1998), Power & Politics in Project Management, Project Management Institute, Sylva, NC.

PMI (2007), Project Management Competency Development (PMCD) Framework, 2nd ed., PMI, Newtown Square, PA.

Sense, A.J. (2003), “A model of the politics of project leader learning”, International Journal of Project Management, Vol. 21 No. 2, pp. 10715.

Shelley, A. (2006), The Organizational Zoo: A Survival Guide to Work Place, Aslan Publishing, Fairfield, CT.

Shelley, A. (2007), The Organizational Zoo: A Survival Guide to Work Place Behavior, Aslan Publishing, Fairfield, CT.

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