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When Not to Treat a Colleague as You’d Want to Be Treated


Roger was a young rising star. He had always been successful, and prided himself on his brains, speed, and ability to deliver impressive results. His company had just appointed him to take over a troubled country operation in Latin America. He did a brilliant job turning things around financially. But he then got completely stymied by a group of angry employees who started a covert revolution in the ranks — and almost succeeded in getting him fired.

Coaching Roger, I suggested he was a bunny rabbit who had just been attacked by a horde of guinea pigs. When he looked bemused, I suggested that the world is made up of two sorts of people, but only one sort would agree.

Bunny rabbits are convinced that everyone is more or less the same: human, and much like themselves. They bounce through life in a relatively self-sufficient way, open to others but not living their lives in reaction to them. Their deep-seated belief that others are mostly like them leads them to treat others as they would like to be treated themselves — an approach they take pride in as an enlightened and open-minded management approach.

Roger was a classic rabbit. He was a highly ethical, performance-driven manager, and assumed everyone else was (or should be) too. He gave his employees exactly the kind of hands-off autonomy that he had always appreciated. But when they didn’t deliver, he thought they were shirking their responsibilities and started to put the pressure on. It never occurred to him that what the team really wanted was his attention, his direction or, worst of all, his love. When he judged them for under-performing, their admiration quickly turned to fear — and anger.

Guinea pigs have a tendency of comparing themselves to others — and rabbits don’t. Rabbits are busy chasing some internal mission, vision, or benchmark. Guinea pigs tend to measure themselves against others. And when they compare to a perceived rabbit, they feel lesser in some way. This creates a range of reactions ranging from admiring, to judgmental, to angrily jealous.

Guinea pigs often love rabbits, at first. They are ready to admire and follow and emulate. They put the bunny on a bit of pedestal. They feel cuter, fluffier, and bouncier in their company. They can make for loyal friends, partners, or colleagues, as long as they feel cared for and recognized. But there is often an underlying — and largely unconscious — set of expectations in the relationship that many rabbits won’t have recognized. So when a problem arises and the rabbit becomes less cuddly-bunny and more fighting-hare, guinea pigs may feel that their diligent loyalty has been betrayed, and turn angry. And angry guinea pigs can become vengeful and dangerous. They can ally with other resentful guinea pigs and descend on the unwitting bunny in a sometimes-lethal swoop.

What about the bunny? Since a rabbit’s basic assumption is that they are like anyone else, they never fully understand how guinea pigs think. It’s a huge blind spot. They under-estimate how much a guinea pig looks up to them and expects of them. They usually get into trouble with guinea pigs when they try to end or question relationships, or strike out more independently, or start to shine too brightly on their own. Success, which usually comes easily to bunny rabbits, exacerbates the initial positioning — the guinea pig feels like more of a guinea pig, the bunny rabbit begins to feel uncomfortable in their presence, and not understanding what is going on, finds refuge in the company of other rabbits. This exacerbates the guinea pig’s feelings of exclusion.

Another coaching client, whom I’ll call Maria, found herself encircled by guinea pigs in a big new job she had recently taken on, running a national sales operation in the UK. She was a very successful and highly regarded executive who had recently changed firms. She now managed several people who used to be her peers in the industry. A small number of them resented her success, felt that she was not paying enough attention to them, and worked in unison to make life difficult for her. The angrier and more demanding they became, the more Maria retreated behind emails, avoiding direct contact with them, and the more she focused on the rest of the team — fellow rabbits who were thrilled to have such an experienced and empowering leader on board. This made the guinea pigs go into loud, and united, over-drive. Management saw this as Maria’s key leadership challenge — getting her whole team on board.

So how do you deflect the almost inevitable conflicts that arise? First by noting that both these labels are situational. They describe a state of mind vis-a-vis others. You can be a bunny rabbit in most situations, but find yourself a guinea pig with a particular person or social group. I’m usually a pretty fluffy bunny, but there are a few people and situations that immediately put me in guinea pig mode. My tendency there is to attack, criticize, or find fault. I’ve learned that I’m usually the only person this sort of thing harms, as it cuts me off from more powerful people who would probably be happy to help me. Now, I try and calm the envy by consciously putting myself in bunny mode and reaching out to meet the person halfway. Most of the time, to my continuing guinea pig surprise, they do.

Most people tend to side with guinea pigs, assuming that bunny rabbits are as strong and invulnerable as they often come across.  People feel that the last thing a rabbit needs is sympathy. But having been the bunny in a few relationships, and having coached many more, I know just how hurt and confused a bunny gets when it is first envied — then attacked.

So what’s the solution?

  1. Rabbits need to:
    1. Recognize that guinea pigs may require more support, empathy and encouragement than other rabbits.
    2. Understand that your impact on a guinea pig is many times greater than you imagine.
    3. That one of the keys to turn guinea pigs into rabbits is to reveal that you aren’t as perfect as you may seem to them.
  2. Guinea pigs need to:
    1. Acknowledge and recognize that they are projecting unrealistic images onto someone.
    2. Name the emotions underlying their judgement of the rabbits — is it fear, envy, jealousy, inferiority, a mix of all of these?
    3. Avoid making assumptions. Reach out to enough rabbits to realize that they are human too.

The challenge is that the solution comes far more easily to the (usually unsuspecting) rabbit than to the (situation-creating) guinea pig. It takes a lot for a guinea pig to confront a rabbit. But once a rabbit “gets it,” it costs them very little to adapt their behavior to be more inclusive and supportive of a guinea pig. And that’s often enough to bring out any guinea pig’s inner rabbit.

It’s in the interest of every rabbit in the world to help guinea pigs grow their ears. Otherwise, they come and bite off your tail.

It’s your choice.



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