Blaming the Shark: The Importance of Screening for Employee Attitude



It’s safe to say that most people don’t respond to being attacked by a wild animal with good humor and positive vibes. Then again, most people are not 13-year-old surfer Kira-Belle Ollsen.

While Ollsen was surfing in the waters off Avoca Beach last Friday, a shark sank its teeth into her calf and tried to pull her under the surface of the water. Thankfully, Ollsen escaped with only minor injuries – and was in good enough spirits to post Facebook photos of her visit to the hospital, which is how this story found its way to the press. But, where most of us would be shaken and angry, or at least re-evaluating our commitment to the beach, Ollsen has been speaking out to give a stirring defense of the shark in question.

Ollssen says she’s snorkeled with sharks many times without being harmed, and that being attacked has had no impact on her respect for these “amazing creatures.” She’s asked people not to be “negative” about what happened to her, and in fact, claims that she was the one who “dropped in on” the shark, when the wave she had been surfing ended in the midst of a school of fish, where the shark was feeding. Rather than concluding that the shark intended to harm her, Olssen seems to believe she simply got in the way.

“This shark was right in front of me with its mouth wide open getting a fish,” Ollsen told the Daily Telegraph. “It’s their home, they’re only doing what they do every day. It’s not like they say, ‘there’s a person, I’m going to eat it.'”

There’s a great lesson for hiring managers everywhere in this story. In the fast-paced, competitive tech industry, there will always be setbacks and unexpected challenges, whether it’s a deal falling through, a newly discovered flaw in a program that necessitates scrapping and re-doing weeks of work, or a new client demand that can only be met if you cancel your weekend plans or pull an all-nighter. Like a shark unexpectedly popping up in the wave you’re surfing and grabbing hold of your ankle, these challenges and setbacks are hard to plan for, impossible to avoid, and very tough to get through with your composure intact. Still, if your company is going to succeed, all of your employees will need to pitch in and maintain a positive attitude throughout the process.

In fact, when trying to find the right fit for a position in your company, it’s useful to sort potential candidates into two categories: Those who roll with the punches, and those who blame the sharks.

The employees who blame the sharks will refuse to take accountability for any failures or oversights that created your difficult situation. In a tight spot, these employees can be seen asking how someone else screwed up. They become less productive and more negative over time, as they fixate on the challenges of their position, rather than focusing on what they can improve, either in the company processes, or in their own performance, that might help your company to resolve current obstacles and avoid making the same mistakes. These employees will never admit that having a high-performance, high-responsibility position means accepting a certain level of risk and pressure – that they’re in open water, and sharks come with the territory. Instead, they’ll feel personally offended and attacked every time something with teeth swims by.

Not only are these people unpleasant to work with – they can actually harm your bottom line. Toxic, negative employees frequently spread their negativity to the other people they work with, making them less motivated to perform. They create hostile, dysfunctional work environments where success is far less likely. Hiring even a few of these people – or keeping them on board, once you’ve noticed their negative behavior patterns – will undo all the hard work you’ve put into creating a top-notch organizational culture.

By contrast, the right employee for your organization will be prepared to deal with challenges. They will be experienced enough to know the common pitfalls and setbacks that befall people in their position, and will have sound strategies in place to avoid them. They will approach any task with an eye to seeing how they can support other employees and improve your company’s processes and culture. And, in the event that they meet an unavoidable obstacle – a shark hiding in seemingly clear waters – they’ll do what it takes to minimize the damage, without taking it personally. These are the sorts of employees that motivate others to do their best work, and add to your culture, by remaining easy to work with, and by setting a standard for commitment and excellence that other employees are inspired to meet.

Here at Dave Partners, we frequently say that it’s not qualifications that make the perfect hire – it’s fit with your culture. We do the work of looking for signs of toxicity and negativity in the hiring process, and screening those candidates out, so that you only have to meet with people that you’ll genuinely appreciate working with. But, whenever crunch time hits your company, it’s worth looking around and re-evaluating your team: Who’s underwater? And who’s keeping a smile on their face while swimming with sharks?




Reprinted by Permission

Image Credit: CC by Alexander Safonov

About the author: Dave Carvajal

Dave Carvajal built HotJobs (650 employees, IPO & $1.2B market cap then sold to Yahoo!) as Co-founder & TheLadders (400 employees, $80M revs) where he focused on attracting, retaining and developing all employees. These days he’s asked by top VCs and CEOs of high-growth startups to build their Boards and leadership teams with the top 1% of A+ executive talent. He is an Ironman and lives in NJ with his wife where he is co-founder of twin boys and a pup named Clover.

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