Whatever Works

‘Jackass’ Penguins Are No Dummies When It Comes to Communication

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk.”
—Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in the Pink Floyd song “Keep Talking”

In the work world, successfully communicating a message to workers is imperative for business success. In the animal world, communication is critical to sustain life.

I recently stumbled upon an episode of the Discovery Channel documentary Africa while flipping channels. I was fascinated by all of the creatures shown in the segment, but the African black-footed penguin really caught my attention.

Even in a continent populated with many unique species, the penguins living there must surely get frosty looks from the other animals they encounter—”What are you doing here, jackass?” Of course, those animals undoubtedly know that the African bird is nicknamed the “jackass penguin” not for its unusual choice of habitat but for the donkeylike sound it makes.

While the breed is endangered in the wild, it still has found a way to survive for millennia in a climate completely foul for a fan of frozen temperatures. To survive in this unpenguinlike climate, the mostly monogamous birds must act as a team.

In the documentary, a mother penguin risks her life by sitting on her eggs trying desperately to keep them cool from the fierce heat while the father goes hunting for fish. The mother suffers for 10 days on the nest before the father returns to relieve her.

And so life goes on, even in the toughest of conditions. And that’s thanks to unspoken communication between two partners.

In the wild, one of the African penguin’s biggest predators in the ocean is sharks. While the documentary thankfully doesn’t show any such encounters, it did show a fascinating display of great white sharks feeding on a whale carcass. Before the sharks indulged themselves, they would swim next to each other, apparently trying to judge who was more deserving of the meal. So the sharks waited their turn. A pecking order, if you will, was established through communication.

In the workplace, communication can easily break down. Take part of the onboarding process, for example. Companies give workers huge packets of information on policies, health care benefits and so on, but not all organizations take the time to really explain what it means. This is especially true when it comes to younger workers.

According to Lin Grensing-Pophal’s story on Workforce.com, there are sometimes unrealistic expectations that workers should know the rules of professionalism in the office. And senior leaders might not be aware that the nature of professionalism is changing and millennial workers might have different ideas.

As Jason Henham of Slate Consulting says in the story, people in human resources often view professionalism through an outdated lens. Younger people are perhaps not as in-tune with the dress codes or set schedules that have been workplace mainstays for years.

So if you want those young workers to follow your rules, don’t get frustrated, just communicate it to them from the day they start. Don’t assume they know what you want.

That’s what jackass penguins would do, and they’re no dummies.

James Tehrani is Workforce’s managing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.