What is Koala Bear Syndrome?

Flea-ridden, piddling, stinking, scratching, rotten little things”

John Brown – Australian Minister for Tourism

In the 1980s, the Tourism Minister sparked a national outcry when he described the koala bear in a such disparaging way. Koalas are considered a national animal icon in Australia with overseas tourist seeking to view and be photographed holding them. Koalas are not actually bears, but are mammal marsupials (have pouches) and are protected by law.

Koalas are found in the eucalyptus forests of eastern Australia and feast exclusively on eucalyptus leaves, which are tough and not very nutritious. They are covered in grey fur, weigh up to 14 kilograms, have strong clawed feet suitable for climbing and living in trees and are universally considered ‘cute’. Their poor diet means that they get little energy, needing to eat up to one kilogram of leaves per day. They are very docile and sleep up to 18 hours per day. The koala’s brain is very small, and they are considered the least intelligent mammal in the world. In summary the koala is protected, considered ‘cute’, not very intelligent, docile and not very productive.

The concept of the Koala Bear Syndrome© (KBS©) has been developed from a lifetime of work experiences in a range of businesses. Fellow workers often referred to some of their peers, colleagues and bosses as “marsupials”.

They didn’t have pouches, so why call them marsupials?

Because like most marsupials in Australia they appeared to be a “protected species’ and displayed such characteristics as being chronic under performers who could say and do anything without bearing the consequences or being held accountable. However, I consider the characteristics of the koala a better description of such people, particularly those who produce little, under perform, lack energy, are lazy, continually made the same mistakes, are incompetent and more importantly appear to be protected by their managers. They are rarely held to account. Koala bears are another form of disruptive employee, although they are more likely to be less obvious.

Sadly, few organisations are completely free from KBS©. We all have our blind spots and the challenge is to be self-aware enough to recognise them. Looking back, there are times when I have allowed KBS© to exist by failing to recognise it. KBS© tends to manifest itself more in private family companies, where business owners are more emotionally involved and where family members are not held to the same standards as other employees. Employing relatives and friends is also another area where KBS© is more likely exit.

Are there koala bears in your organisation?

How do you recognise them and what are you going to about it?

Value statements, structured performance appraisals, codes of conduct and clear and strong leadership can assist in managing KBS©.

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