Conversations in Management: Cockroaches!

“Cockroaches are a simple animal, but they can reach a complex decision.”

Isaac Planas-Sitjà.

CockroachFirst let’s review what we already know about cockroaches. For one thing, they’ve been crawling around the planet for a very long time—roughly 300 million years. They’ve been around so long that they are one of the few surviving inhabitants of Pangea. That’s the super continent that existed before drifting apart into the world as we know it today. We also know that cockroaches are quick. They’ve been clocked at 3.4 miles per hour which doesn’t seem all that fast until you consider it’s about 50 body lengths per second. If we moved that fast we’d be doing 210 mph! Do we even need to mention that they’re nasty, dirty, disease-spreading pests? That je ne sais quoi you may have noticed when in proximity to the little creatures won’t be mistaken for Chanel. It’s actually a malodorous secretion of partially digested food. On the subject of food, they enjoy beer, milk, cheese, meat and pastry (among other things). Because of the muck they crawl through they can poison our victuals and when they die, they can make us sick when we breathe their remains. They love dark, wet places. This is definitely a high “yuck factor” bug. Or is it?

Our friends in the world of science have recently made some startling findings about the cockroach. It seems we may have been misjudging the ubiquitous periplaneta Americana. Isaac Planas-Sitjà is the lead researcher for the Université Libre de Bruxelles’ cockroach project. After careful study his team concluded cockroaches, unlike bees that pretty much do what they’re told, have distinct personalities. The team found some cockroaches are cautious while others are adventurous, some are shy others aggressive. Perhaps further study will reveal cockroaches with a clever sense of irony, or given to flights of whimsy (they have wings after all) or displaying tender-hearted sentimentality. That remains to be seen. But whatever their personality type, when exposed to light they argue a lot and try to persuade others to their point of view. Despite this wrangling, Planas-Sitjà discovered that in the end, the cockroaches always reached consensus and arrived at the same conclusion—scoot back to whatever dark place they emerged from. Of course while they’re busy arguing with one another, they run the risk of being squashed, but one supposes that’s just part of being a cockroach. It does seem to work for them.

Planas-Sitjà also noted that cockroaches, while simple beings, reach complex decisions just like people. And why not? We like the same food and have similar work habits. Hasn’t everyone been locked down in an interminable meeting while folks argued about what to do before reaching a conclusion that was obvious to begin with?  Just like cockroaches. Chances are you’ve probably also encountered cockroaches of the two-legged variety. You know the type. They come into the light long enough to poison relationships and plans before crawling back under their rock.  Let’s face it; the Université Libre de Bruxelles’ cockroach project is humanity’s wake-up call. Learning that our predilection for management meetings represents only a slight evolutionary advancement over the cockroach is enough to keep the most ardent planner from ever scheduling another. And drawing attention to problematic cockroach personalities might help us deal with the human kind. Squashing those office trouble makers may prove too extreme, but at least their negative impact can be neutralized with a little thought. Still, though we share some similarities with this creepy cohabiter of the planet, it won’t stop me from calling the exterminator next time I see one!    —Ebert

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