During the pandemic, I started a hobby. With about $20.00 of equipment, a spare gallon pickle jar, and some shrimp I started a fully planted tank. The collection then grew to a couple of 10-gallon tanks and, because of the prolific nature of Mickey Mouse platys, the hobby has now grown to several large tanks totaling 300 gallons and several different species of fish. Building these tanks has been incredibly relaxing, and each time I aquascape a tank learn something new. The best thing about those tanks is the communities being built because you get to see fish interact with each other and observe their behavior.

Building a fish community requires a lot of thought and can be very complicated. You need to know the required water parameters for specific species, their behavior towards other fish, and how they interact. For instance, you don’t want to place large predators with small schooling fish, or you won’t have any schooling fish. You also don’t want to have too many of the same fish in one tank (with a few exceptions). Overstocking with either fish or plants can be lethal to a tank if not properly managed and filtered. You need to understand how beneficial bacteria help with the nitrogen cycle and the health of your tank. What I’ve found is that any tank of fish will try to survive and can be accommodated with additional filtration, more frequent water changes, special planting schemes or subdivisions within a tank, or additives to the water to make up for missing elements, but to truly thrive there needs to be a balance. And balance means having diversity in your tank’s ecosystem.

Balance often isn’t planned out right away. It’s easy to just stock a tank with only platys or tetras because you know what they will eat and what they will do. But after a while, they become boring. There’s no interaction, and the fish start to just, well, sit there. They are bored, and there’s no activity or dynamic in the tank. My personal preference for a tank is to start with a diverse set of rocks and wood to make for interesting hardscaping. Then planting with several types of plants for interest, aiming for a natural feel. For the livestock I often have a showcase fish that’s generally a slow mover, then some fast schooling fish to add some energy, and finally a couple of unusual fish, shrimp, or clams that make for interesting discoveries. Once you have a perfect balance of plants, filtration, scavenger fish or shrimp, slow-moving fish, and fast-moving schooling fish, you have a fun and exciting tank to sit and watch.

Watching these tanks and their interactions, the anthropologist in me started relating the experience to human communities where relationships and experiences of groups and individuals contribute to everyone’s success. Jumping to the work dynamic, every team has its own community, though how that community succeeds depends entirely on its composition. It’s easy to build an organization where everyone thinks, behaves, and reacts similarly in any given situation. When running in a maintenance mode this type of organization will work very well, though will be less able to creatively solve new problems.

Adding some diversity to a community brings new perspectives and encourages creative approaches to solving problems. Of course, there are levels of diversity, and the more diverse a community, the more creative and innovative that community can be. Indeed posted an excellent article that outlines 20 benefits of a diverse workforce, and they are considerable!

It can also be very uncomfortable at first, just as when adding a new fish species to a tank can be tense as fish try to figure out their place in the tank With all opportunities to develop, being uncomfortable is a good thing. The breadth of knowledge that comes from different cultures, experiences, specialties, mindsets, and perspectives opens the community to new levels of success.

While diversity is important, inclusion and a sense of belonging are where the real magic happens. When adding new fish to a tank, the dynamics of the fish interaction change as the tank accepts that new species. Then, instead of schooling in a tight group or hiding behind the plants or rocks, the fish explore and interact with others in a natural, interesting way. In a work community, it’s just as important to help everyone feel comfortable and accepted, and their views and experiences welcome. Forbes has an outstanding article on the power of inclusion, which takes diversity a step further. Diversity is great, but if team members do not feel comfortable, they will remain reserved and withhold the value their perspectives and experiences could bring. Every manager should make it their priority to make sure every single direct report feels safe and comfortable sharing their perspectives. If they do not feel safe and comfortable, not only will you lose the value of their perspective, you likely will not have them on your team for very long.

I love to watch the fish in my tank as they explore, interact, and enjoy playing with each other. Their social interactions are fascinating to watch, and they provide a calming experience. It continues to bring me new insights into how a community can work, and how building a community can be a rewarding experience. Having a diversely stocked tank has been a fantastic allegory for the benefits of diversity, inclusion, and belonging within the workplace.

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