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Teamwork: Lessons from the Meerkat

teamwork lessons from a meerkat

This article was originally published on March 13, 2014 and has been updated

When you think of teamwork, the last thing you probably think about is meerkats, those strange little denizens of the Kalahari Desert.

By rights these cute, squirrel-sized members of the mongoose family shouldn’t be able to survive in such an inhospitable, dry and scorching environment.

They’re defenseless—surrounded by predators.

To add insult to injury, they have to dig for food—not just a little digging, but up to several times their body weight, just to get at one small morsel of caterpillar or beetle larvae.

Yet—cute, frenzied, tough and tenacious, survive they do, and quite successfully.

Their secret? Teamwork.

That’s right.

Meerkats are one of the few animals on Earth that can work together as a team—almost as well as humans.

These furry little creatures live together in large groups called mobs. Mobs have as many as 30 members.

They live together and hunt together—but most importantly, they work together.

If you’re a leader struggling with your team, you may want to take a lesson or two (in this case, four) from meerkats.

Four teamwork lessons we can learn from meerkats:

1. Sharing the load.

Picture this:

You’re a meerkat and you have to dig for food. Problem is, you’re so small that when you dig you need to stick your head in the ground.

Your bottom is up, which means you can easily become a tasty snack for a marauding eagle or venomous snake.

Meerkats take turns on guard duty, standing up high on a rock or in a tree watching for predators while the rest of the team forages for food.

If that’s not teamwork, I don’t know what is.

Meerkats work together to share the load with one goal in mind—food.

As a leader, you should always make sure your team is working together and sharing the load.

A great team works together with one objective in mind: the end goal. A team must do whatever it takes to get to that final destination.

This could mean taking up an extra project, chipping in when someone is falling behind, or diving in to deal with an exceptionally venomous client.

A real team shares the load. They never leave anyone behind. And it’s your job as a leader to make sure everyone is doing their fair share.

2. Communication.

The sentry meerkat calls out constantly to its teammates. There are 30 distinct calls in meerkat talk, and their survival hinges on a single rule: keep talking.

Communication plays a fundamental role in great teamwork. To efficiently work together as a team, there must be good communication. When a team cannot communicate, the work is put at risk.

As a leader, make sure that your team knows how to communicate. This also applies to you. You should always have lines of communication open with your team.

Remember: active listening is a critical leadership skill.

3. Stick together.

When escape is not an option, meerkats stand their ground and band together to fight off rival gangs and predators as large as jackals.

A meerkat mob will sometimes create a cover by stirring up dust, or they will stand together in a group to look larger than they are.

When push comes to shove, a good team sticks together. When someone is struggling with a deadline, a strong team works together to help that person.

When a crisis occurs and a team member needs help—or risks losing a client or proposal—a good team jumps in to help solve the problem.

A good team stands together.

teamwork

4. Raise and develop.

Meerkats understand the importance of growing and training their replacements.

At least one adult meerkat will always stay around the den to look after the young of the clan. The adults in the group make it a point to give young meerkats on-the-job training as apprentice hunters.

Leaders or team members in higher positions should always be pushing for the growth, training, and development of their colleagues or employees.

They should provide constructive feedback to help their team members grow—and provide support when needed.

Does this all sound familiar yet?

Clearly, the strength of the tiny meerkat lies in the unique solidarity of the clan.  

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What lessons are here for workplace teams and their leaders?
  • How can these four lessons build greater power in our teams?
  • What roadblocks can you see?

Please share your perspectives by using the comments link below.

For more helpful tips about teamwork and leadership, check out the blogs below:

The 5 Practices of Leadership Literacy

Six steps you can take today to work towards a leadership role tomorrow

A unique employee team-building idea from one of my client organizations

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