This weekend, I was scanning the radio when I landed on NPR and an interview with Josh Swiller, author of The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness in Africa. The interviewer read an excerpt from the book; after only a few lines, I was hooked. The words he chose to paint the picture of his experiences working for the Peace Corps in Zambia were unlike anything I’d heard before. But, more than his descriptive language, there was one story from the book that got my wheels turning.
During the interview, Josh mentioned he got into quite a bit of trouble including a few fights during his time in Africa. Part of the cause was due to his deafness but often times the larger part was due to his lack of cultural awareness. He told a story of how his “in your face” approach to get things done often offended the locals. They preferred what they called “the snake in the grass”—not coming right out and saying or demanding what you want, rather slither around a bit before you go for the kill. His approach was all wrong. Has that ever happened to you on the job? Sure, the cultural differences within a company might not be as big of a chasm as the ones Josh faced in Zambia, but they can still undermine your ability to get the job done.
Josh was a “liger,” an animal made famous by the movie Napoleon Dynamite. Part lion and part tiger, a liger roars first and asks questions later. Instead of paying attention to their habitat, they often pound, or eat, the table until they get their way. But even though they get things done, they often create friction with coworkers, clients, and higher ups. If you’re going to be a liger, do so sparingly. If not, you might just growl your way out of a job.
When Josh told the story about the “snake in the grass,” it was the first time I’d heard the phrase used in a positive light. The phrase obviously has a completely different, and albeit negative, connotation in our culture. And you’ll get no arguments here. I’m not a huge fan of snakes, but especially not snakes in the grass. They’ve got to be the worst kind. As I think about how to approach situations in the workplace, the snake in the grass analogy holds water. Instead of going in for the kill, they move slowly about until they’re in a position to make their move. When was the last time you tried to persuade someone to adopt an idea? Did you go through a period of time building rapport and developing trust before you asked them to consider your proposal?
Continually improve your cultural awareness both of your work group and the company as a whole. But instead of using venom, learn what buttons to push with what people. And watch out for lawnmowers—the second leading killer of snakes in the grass.
Shawn Graham is an Associate Director with the MBA Career Management Center at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (courtingyourcareer.wordpress.com).