The Preyful Manager

September 4, 2018

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In Kevin Behan’s book, Your Dog is Your Mirror, he has a lot to say about emotions and how our relationship with man’s age-old canine companion tells us a lot about us as emotional creatures. Behan makes many bold assertions that upend many of the conventional schools of thinking about animal behavior. For instance, he rejects the language of dominance and submissive behavior outright and instead replaces it with his own model of predator and prey behavior (The Immediate Moment Theory).

The predatory aspects of behavior are things that you may already be familiar with, such as a predatory look (hard focus), with eyes locked on a target, using height and size to establish advantage, being very still and coiled, ready for attack. These are all physical manifestations reflecting the emotional state recognized as predatory. Think of a traditional predator like a wolf or a lion just prior to attack. They are locked on to their target, frozen, waiting for the moment to strike.

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On the flip side we have what Behan describes as the Preyful attitude. The preyful aspects include a soft focus, rhythmic, meandering movement, a relaxed attitude, small/slow approach. These are the common aspects of prey as you typically see it in nature.

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Behan makes a rather astonishing assertion that the predatory and preyful are different poles of emotional behavior and that they can be flipped or switched on and off in the same individual. This means that what you typically see as a predator does not have to behave in exclusively predatory ways. In fact, a predator can exhibit behavior that is actually preyful in nature. Neither state is good or bad, they are simply assigned opposite polarity: positive and negative.

In the same way that we might see dominant and submissive behavior in human interaction, we can look for these two emotional aspects of behavior in our day to day interactions as well.

Where I might describe a manager who is prone to controlling behavior as dominant, I might now use a metaphor like predatory. And where I might describe someone on the team as submissive, I might replace that with the term preyful. So people can have predatory and preyful aspects to them. The clever thing that Bejan does is to allow these two aspects or polarities to switch freely between the two parties. A person who often tends to behave in a preyful way can switch their behavior to a predatory mode. This switch in polarity may happen in response to different contexts or stimuli in the environment. When it happens, it can be very confusing for those who are predatory. The prey is no longer acting as prey. So it’s a dynamic between two parties.

So how do we use these notions of Predatory and Preyful in a fashion that is helpful to us in an organizational transformation? I think it might apply to how we are asking managers to change their own roles during an agile transformation. Typically we don’t address the emotional side of the change, and this is perhaps a big mistake. Emotions count much more heavily in our assessment of the impact of change than just about anything else.

We are looking for managers to change from a position on high, where they are watching workers, looking to jump on mistakes, to a very different role or polarity. We want them to be open and inviting, to be expressing a much softer aspect where they are nurturing and engaging the team rather monitoring and preying on it.

Now to be perfectly clear, there are no absolutes in this model. I don’t think anyone is 100% preyful or 100% predatory. It’s a spectrum and on any given day, we are somewhere in-between those two extremes. Furthermore, I think we move on that spectrum based on mood, context and other variables. What I think we are actually attempting to do is to get managers to explore moving about on this spectrum more readily. There is a time and a place for predatory, aggressive behavior. And there is also a time and a place for preyful behavior. I think it’s our ability to move fluidly and appropriately on this behavior spectrum that makes us better managers.