… something on The Dolphin Model

Sep 10, 2019 · 11 min read
No 5: The Dolphin

In the beginning…

Early in my career, I attended some ‘Soft-skills’ courses. A standard theme running through these courses was the Dolphin Model. I’ve always found I’ve valued and enjoyed taking the time for training and learning more than most; you often hear people complain about training as an easy moan. But The Dolphin Model courses; I really enjoyed. I managed to get myself sent on some above my paygrade, but that’s another story.

On one occasion at work, I found myself a little upset with a conversation with someone in charge of ‘resourcing’, and raising it with a ‘people manager’. I found the best way to explain what the problem was, was “well, he wasn’t displaying very Dolphin behaviour”; and the manager nodded knowingly. The shared language helped immensely.

In the years since, I searched for references to the Dolphin Model repeatedly, but to no avail. The nearest thing I found, was a book called “Being a Dolphin Parent”, so I got a copy. This wasn’t “uninteresting”, but wasn’t the model I’m describing here — it was about avoiding being a ‘Tiger Mom’.

I also took an Assertiveness evening class some years ago, and started to recognise the behaviours described and map them onto the Dolphin Model I’d been taught.

Eventually, three or so years ago, I thought it would be an interesting topic to speak about at an open-space event I’m involved in. At that point I had to remember all the details from memory and it was a struggle.

Since then I’ve talked about it and described it a few times (possibly too much), and indeed I now work with someone that also took and remembers the courses.

When I gave my talk last autumn, two people independently asked me at the end if I’d read Radical Candor, which I hadn’t heard of at the time, but now crops up every where I turn. I found it to be closely related but not quite the same; and I’ll cover this at the end.

“Have you ever worked with a Shark?”

First of all, this is wrong. The question should be:

“Have you ever worked with someone showing Shark-like behaviour”

Always separate out the behaviour from the person. Never de-humanise a person; they may show monstrous-behaviour, but they are not a monster, they are still a human. “Play the ball, not the person”, as they say in Football. Though playing the person is exactly what a Shark is prone to do; turning to Personal Attack.

However, I always get a knowing response from audiences when I ask about sharks. All too many people have come across this behaviour at some point, and it can easily be traumatising.

You can picture them; prowling the office, periodically going in for the kill, people cowering away from them, tiptoeing around them as they don’t want to deal with their Aggressive behaviour.

Shark-like behaviour is characterised by a lack of empathy, a coldness, but with a self-assurance, an arrogance, highly confident that they will get what they want. Not caring that that will be at the expense of others. They are just seeking the Win, and happy for others to Lose because of that.

All too often it has to be their way, ‘do or die’. Compromise is for wimps. And woe betide if they have authority, expect them to use it.

Finally, they are often the source of problems that everyone else must solve or work around; making extra work for others.

The Shark

The Shark: Arrogant, cold, aggressive, lacks empathy, seeks Win-Lose scenarios. Doesn’t like to compromise. Can be the cause of many problems themselves.

The Goldfish

The opposite to the Shark is the Goldfish.

Goldfish behaviour is exhibiting a lack of confidence and just going along with everything that is said. A bit like a nodding-dog will say “yay” to everything, but will then just float there blowing bubbles. They may well be friendly and quite possibly cheer things along, but won’t actually take part.

This is Passive behaviour, showing a lack of action and just being a part of the audience. They can be happy for someone else to take what they want — allowing them to ‘Win’, being quite content to ‘Lose’ themselves.

With low confidence, they’re not willing in stand up to sharks and have their voice heard. This is how you get Yes-people this is Artificial Harmony. If they do point out a problem, they won’t attempt to solve it

There is danger here, as whilst the intention is good (or at least, not Bad), there will be no action; and if you were relying their action you can be tripped up.

The Goldfish (though possibly more Babelfish)

The Goldfish: Lacking confidence, warm but passive, overly empathic, lack of action, happy to go along with Lose-Win scenarios. Can point to a problem without solving it, happy in their comfort-zone with Artificial Harmony.

The Jellyfish

Jellyfish have dangerous behaviours. For a start they’re cold, lacking in empathy, like the Shark. They can be as bad as the Shark, but not openly so. They can lurk — they will apparently go along with things, gently bobbing up and down in agreement until the last minute, when you need their input; and they will suddenly undermine everything.

Jellyfish have a sting in their tail.

Quite often they will also have to have the last word. This is Passive-Aggressive behaviour. They don’t mind losing, but they’re going to take you down with them. They can actively look for Lose-Lose.

They may or may not be the cause of the problems directly themselves, but they can use the problem to lay traps for others.

The best example of this I have experienced, was selling my first house; the buyer obviously got upset at something early on in the process. Rather than say anything, they waited until the day of completion to demand money off the agreed price. A sting in the tail. This was an extremely stressful day, though as it happened we had taken steps to protect ourselves from sale falling through. I was able to tell them to “Get Lost”.

I actually felt very sorry for the young lady at the estate agents, whose boss who had been handling the sale had gone on holiday that day. It’s not often I have that much sympathy for estate agents, but I got the impression the so-called ‘buyer’ had been fairly rude.

The Jellyfish: Lacking in confidence, though can be self-satisfied, cold, works to undermine. Can go out of their way to find Lost-Lose outcomes. Lays traps for others around existing problems.

And… The Dolphin

Dolphin behaviour is what you want from all and any team you work in. This represents a lack of politics, being open and honest and looking for Win-Wins.

This is Assertive behaviour; the ideal — confident without being arrogant or aggressive. Note that seeking Win-Wins is one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

If you’re not doing this, ask yourself “Why?”. Are you doing your best for the team, or are you serving your own agenda?

Dolphin behaviour is being clear about your goals but also listening and acknowledging other people’s goals and trying to find a way to achieve them all.

I have on occasion worried that using this model could be considered “manipulative” , but being a Dolphin is also about having the integrity of keeping your word, or fronting-up if you can’t. Anything else is being the Jellyfish.

Essentially, ask yourself:

“What is the most mature way in which I can deal with this”

Being a Dolphin is about taking responsibility, scooping up problems, not just pointing at them; though this can be on your own terms. A Dolphin avoids Personal Attack, but doesn’t settle for Artificial Harmony.

The Dolphin

The Dolphin: displays Assertive behaviour, confident, warm, looks for Win-Wins. States opinion but willing to listen and consider others opinions too. Takes responsibility for scooping, not just pointing at them.


So, how does all of this hang together?

The Dolphin Model is a quadrant model, but does have a scale — you can be more or less Shark-like. But what are the axes?

The vertical axis describes the level of Confidence someone has; for a Shark and Dolphin this will be high; for a Goldfish and Jellyfish, low.

The horizontal axis is the amount of personal warmth, or empathy; how good a rapport do they have? A Dolphin will have a lot, whereas the Shark very little.

The Dolphin Model

The Dolphin Model: maps Confidence and Personal Warmth (Empathy) to different behaviours, and their wish to find Win:Win solutions

Using the Dolphin Model

So far we have explored the different types of behaviour, and sometimes, as a sense-making model that’s enough. Sometimes identifying types of behaviour and being able to call it out can be enough.

For example, on one occasion I recognised some very Passive-Aggressive behaviour by someone on a local village social-media group; and I asked them to stop being Passive-Aggressive, which brought it to an end — I was privately congratulated by someone in person some weeks later. They were known to always have to have the last word on everything, and nothing could ever be right.

Identification of behaviour is a big step in the journey, and can be quite cathartic in itself; it represents an opening of the eyes, as well as step in awareness of the context of your situation.

There are two further steps though. The second is being able to use the Dolphin Model to work out how to handle and respond to the different types of behaviour. The third is to actually be able to do it, which will become easier with practice.

Ideally you are trying to pull everyone into the Dolphin Quadrant — there lies peak effectiveness for a team. That is to say, draw people up and to the left.

One way to do this is to try to approximately match the level of Confidence shown by the other person. Often you only gain the respect of someone displaying Shark behaviour by standing up to them. But either way you must get your (apparent) confidence up there, to be able to talk them down.

This can just be a case of taking a deep breath before the encounter and stating your opinion assertively, without being aggressive (and always polite). It may be you need to assert your right to talk with a phrase like “Please let me finish”, which in itself starts establishing ground rules, and don’t give up. Stay calm. State your case. But you are always trying to add warmth to the relationship, establishing rapport — pulling them over to the right on the model.

Those with low confidence probably won’t feel able to express their honest opinion in the face of someone very confident; they may well see it as arrogance. It could be a case of speaking softly, sitting across the corner of a table, not face to face over a (at worse, your) desk. Think of the ‘Power Relationship’ — to establish communication properly, it must feel like a meeting of equals. To really flourish, you must give away ‘power’ to establish rapport.

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,” — Rudyard Kipling

This is all about building rapport, making small talk, opening a channel to communicate — just as Patrick Lencioni, author of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, often uses a Personal Histories exercise to build bridges through Trust (the first layer), and then addressing the second layer (Conflict) by seeking relationships that are neither based on Artificial Harmony (this could be the Goldfish or the Jellyfish), nor based on Personal Attack (the Shark).

And… Radical Candor

The Radical Candor model is closely related to the Dolphin Model whilst separately conceived.

Superficially, the models are a diagonal ‘flip’ of each other, and below I have added the Radical Candor quadrant labels to the Dolphin Model.

Radical Candor focusses on giving feedback to those in the same organisation as you, and presents a whole toolkit of management techniques. The Dolphin Model is about establishing relationships with anyone you come in to contact with, especially those that it feels awkward dealing with, and working on that relationship.


Being a Dolphin is all about taking responsibility for the state of a relationship and dealing with people. It’s easy to get sucked into less ideal behaviour and rising above that is all part of it.

Around the time of originally learning of the Dolphin Model, I also came across the question “Are you a Pooper, a Pointer, or a Scooper?”, but that’s the subject of another blog-post; though I’ve referenced this throughout this one.


I love the Dolphin Model, I like the small bits of humour involved, and I like the sea-theme; yes, it is a little cutesy.

I’ve used it as a frame of reference for many years and found it useful as a guiding light to how I should be behaving. I always do try, though it’s remarkably easy to get sucked in to other behaviours. Being a Dolphin is about taking responsibility for building constructive relationships. Indeed the title of my talks have usually been “Responsibility and the Dolphin Model”.

I found an important takeaway from the Assertiveness course was the right to choose to deal with a difficult person or issue *on your own terms* — when and how. This is not to say you can defer for too long, but considering something overnight, is perfectly acceptable. I’ve told companies and recruiting agents pressurising me for a decision on whether to take a contract or not that I always consider these things overnight, or even over a weekend, and whilst they usually don’t like it they can see that it is perfectly reasonable. Creating some space for your thought is perfectly reasonable.

This is being Assertiveness, being more Dolphin.


If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to tweet me, and use the #BeMoreDolphin hashtag — I look forward to meeting you online.

If you didn’t enjoy it, I’d love to hear the feedback, be more dolphin and let me know.


With Thanks to Mike Coates, now at Prophecy Consulting in London, for introducing me to The Dolphin Model.

Ingeniously Simple

How Redgate build ingeniously simple products, from inception to delivery.


Written by

@TheCodeCleaner agile consultant, committed clean coder, slayer of complexity and harbinger of tea. Remourner. Now 'part of the team' at @RedGateProdDev

Ingeniously Simple

How Redgate build ingeniously simple products, from inception to delivery.

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