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Would You Rather be a Shark or a Dolphin?
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 01/08/2018

Shark 2 The following is an installment in "Icebreakers 101: Hello, My Name is Problem", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

Let’s break some ice! Let us not use a sharp ice chipping instrument. Instead, we can utilize the perceived personality traits of two animals.

If you really think about it, there are no bad animals. All creatures fit into their own niches. Carnivores eat flesh, herbivores do not and omnivores eat just about anything. We cannot fault a wolf for eating a sheep any more than we can fault the sheep for grazing on vegetation.

Peter Benchley, Author of “Jaws” adapted that book into the ‘70’s blockbuster movie of the same name. In the movie and sequels, the shark was sometimes viewed as malevolent, calculating and vengeful. In mass media, dolphins are almost always seen as benevolent and friends of humans.

What we do to enhance a story amounts to anthropomorphizing. Or, we tend to add human motives and characteristics to animals. And while it can be supposed that there are no jealous spiders or ambitious badgers, the concept remains.

This is a very simple icebreaker built on animals assigned with human emotions.
  1. Split the class into two teams.
  2. Designate one team as Team Shark and the other as Team Dolphin.
  3. Have team shark define aggression and list ten behaviors and/or interesting facts about sharks. Computers and or phones may be used. These should be recorded on paper.
  4. Have team dolphin define assertion and list ten behaviors and/or interesting facts about dolphins. Computers and or phones may be used. These should be recorded on paper.
  5. Team Shark will report to the class with one spokesperson.
  6. Team Dolphin will report to the class with one spokesperson.
  7. The facilitator will ask the whole class for ten aggressive human behaviors. In soliciting these, participants are cautioned to not name names if the behavior reflects badly on the individual in the department or if the person is easily identified.
  8. The facilitator will ask the whole class for ten assertive human behaviors.
  9. This exercise can segue easily into modules on how we deal with aggressive co-workers, prisoners or customers.
  10. After the discussion, distribute the following article to class for their consideration and information.
Maybe actual sharks are the wolves of the sea. They will do what they were wired to do and they do not have the dictates of human mores and societal limits to temper their behaviors. Human sharks exist and make many lives difficult with their aggression. How we handle the human sharks will determine if they continue to select us as prey or move on to other targets.

Would You Rather be a Shark or a Dolphin? How We Treat Each Other

In 1994, the movie “Swimming with Sharks” was released. Far from being a discovery channel-type documentary on marine life, “Swimming with Sharks” was the story of a sadistic Hollywood executive who abused co-workers.

Played by Kevin Spacey, the lead character used verbal and physical abuse when dealing with his coworkers. His ways of managing others included intimidation, use of degrading profanity, and irrational shifts of expectations.

We can say that it is only a movie. But we can also point to those negative attributes and recall a true work story. And when this is superimposed on corrections, the ramifications of this personality type is dangerous. This sort of behavior breeds resentment, revenge and manipulation.

This leads to a mis-focus, as we are too busy watching ourselves rather than our job duties and the actions of prisoners. When we are distracted from our primary job, we provide conditions for danger in many forms.

As we swim through the waters of work, we encounter many sharks. Yet, there are also dolphins, too. Let’s look at some of the personalities.

Sharks are rather obvious to most of us. They show aggressive behavior as they prowl what they consider to be their territory.

The same is true of their human counterparts. They are, above all, predators, preying on weaker co-workers in order to show that they are dominant. Their chief goal is to destroy others so that they many continue to flourish.

Dolphins are never seen as villains. They are calm and peace-loving creatures. But that does not mean that they are helpless. Intelligence is the prominent quality of the dolphin. In nature, dolphins can defend themselves against predators. In some cases, dolphins have banded together to chase sharks out of an area. In a sort of natural bully control, they have even been known to head-butt would-be predators.

In human terms, dolphins are assertive, rather than aggressive. They defend themselves and attack only when necessary. Also, just because a dolphin does not display aggression does not mean that this is an ineffective staff person. Their chief goal is to exist well in their environment.

There is a variation on the shark theme. That is the shark in dolphin’s clothing. In other words, this is a predator that appears to be safe and gentle. Their mannerisms and behavior indicate that they are benevolent and trustworthy colleagues. However, that is not their true nature. As office predators, they use that camouflage to cover their sneak attacks on others. They are calculating and manipulative. As we swim in the waters of corrections, there are perils. But shark repellents are available. Some of them are professionalism, knowledge, and experience. And since most sharks call attention to themselves, they are easy to detect.

Human interaction is always complex. But those basic models serve to remind us of how things can be. Just as in nature, there are many sharks in the waters of the work world. It is fortunate that the dolphins balance against the predators. And it is possible for human sharks to change their nature. At work, where do you fit in? Are you more like a shark or a dolphin?

Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014” and "Operation Icebreakers: Shooting for Excellence" among others. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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