Not the behemoths you see on Animal Planet lounging in the watering holes in Africa with just their warty heads above the mud. I’m talking about a different kind of hippo. I’m talking about the large, wrinkled ladies in flowered bathing suits and freshly poofed hair, who lounge on the steps in public swimming pools. You know the ones. They gather in groups of three or four, gabbing ceaselessly about their grandchildren, the weather, Regis and their next trip to Miami Beach. They don’t like it when the kids get too close or too noisy, and God help you if you accidentally propel a few drops of water toward their cotton-candy hairdos.
“Stop splashing,” is their whiny battle cry. “I just got my hair done.”
My older brother and I spent many summer Sundays when we were growing up swimming in the pool at our grandparents’ apartment. We did what kids do. Threw pennies in the deep end and swam down to retrieve them. Played tag. Threw a ball back and forth. Chased each other. Performed big wet belly flops off the side. We were good kids, though. Didn’t run near the pool. Always waited 30 minutes after lunch before swimming. And we were respectful of the hippos, bellowing and snorting at the far end of the pool. Truth is we were afraid of them and their great lumpy, mashed potato thighs that would roll back and forth when they emerged from the water and waddled back to their fancy cabanas.
I’ve been thinking about those hippos recently. A key lesson I’ve learned from social media is that sometimes you have to splash the old ladies. The old ladies that pour all of their energy into shooting down new ideas. The old ladies that “just want to play devil’s advocate for a minute.” The old ladies that cling to traditional ways of accomplishing things, even as those ways become less and less effective.
I spent a lot of years being careful not to splash the hippos. My brother and I hung in the middle of the pool to give them some distance. We used the ladders instead of going past them on the steps. We would be hustled off to play shuffleboard when our parents sensed we were being too rowdy. It is a lot of work keeping the old ladies happy and dry, and a pretty frustrating business.
I’ve done many of the same things at work, but here’s ultimately what I’ve discovered. There is no innovative or creative thinking going on in that hippo herd by the steps. Just a lot of negativity and fear that drags everyone else down with it.
So, go ahead and splash them. Get them good and wet. Let them snort and bellow. And if a few cold splashes chase them out of the stagnant water they like to wade in, everyone will gain.
Of course, in reality you can’t just start flapping your arms and shoot water around like a helicopter just crashed in the pool with its blades still whirling. So here are six tips for splashing them without finding yourself flailing in the deep end with no lifeguard on duty:
- Give credence to their concerns. “There certainly is a possibility people will criticize us if we allow comments on our blog. We need to think through how we will handle that up front.”
- Put the problem in their lap to see how they would solve it. “We could be opening ourselves up for criticism by allowing comments on the blog, but we also want to generate some good conversation around this issue. Any thoughts on the best approach to take?”
- Stay focused on the positive and constructive. Don’t let them pull you down under with them. “Getting broad feedback from the field could help us shape this initiative more effectively.”
- Accept that you may have to settle for starting smaller than you might like, but never lose sight of the bigger, more ambitious goal. With some patience, you can still get there. “How about if we start by moderating all of the comments before they go live and see how that goes?”
- Celebrate the small victories and publicize them widely and with great humility. The small victories will make the old ladies more comfortable when you push for bigger ones.
- Don’t worry about grabbing the glory. Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Be generous with credit. Especially with people who you feel may not be fully on board.
Sometimes you have to give the old ladies a splash. And it will feel really good to do it. Just pick your time carefully, do it respectfully and allow them their dignity. Hippos may have short, pig-like legs, but they can move fast when they are angry.
What about you? Having issues with the hippos at work? Any advice for how to deal with them?