Nature-based stories #4 - Whale songs

Communicate smarter in remote teams - How whale communication can inspire us

One of the most fascinating characteristics of whales lies within their profound communication skills.

Whales use a complex system of intricate sounds including moans, howls and cries to interact and communicate with one another. These sounds are commonly referred to as pulsed calls, clicks and whistles, and it is these sounds rhythmically intertwined, that make up the composition of the well-known “whale song” that continuously inspires our curiosity and awe of wild nature.

Whale communication and sounds are produced due to pockets of air being pushed around within the whales head itself. The sounds are then amplified through a bundle of fat that sits perched upon the whale’s upper jaw, and further amplified by slapping their tails down loudly upon the surface of the water. These loud slaps  reverberate through the water column, travelling deep and act as a method of non-verbal communication.

Vocalisations and songs can often continue for hours, meandering and whispering their way through the depths of the ocean.

In their recent Harvard Business Review article, Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Wooley (1) described that effective communication in remote teams is smarter if they are “bursty, fostering information diversity, establishing periods of deep work without interruption, and tailor the use of audio and video technologies to meet the needs of particular interactions”.

The words “burstiness”, “information diversity” and “deep work”, are being researched as essential parts of effective communication in virtual teams, resonated with me. Aren´t the clicks and pulsed calls an expression of information “bursts” within a remote whale community, and a possibility of feeling connected? And isn´t it important, especially in remote teams, to be “felt” and to “feel” the others in the team?

Generally, whales vocalise within a social setting to interact with one another. Pulsed calls and whistles can be interpreted as short screams or squeaks.

So, can the whale songs be interpreted as an expression of “staying connected” continuously, even when they are hundreds of miles apart from one another?

Clicks, on the other hand, are vocalised and used by whales to interpret their surrounding environment, and are also used as a tool for navigational purposes.  Clicks assist whales in identification of surroundings; the click itself emits a sound wave which in turn bounces off any objects close by. Thereafter, it returns to the whale, assisting them in identifying the shape of the object and thus what it could be. These clicks can therefore, essentially be used to differentiate between predators and non-threatening marine creatures.

In essence, whale songs are two-directional: broadcasting and receiving information.

Could the depth of whale songs that can travel far and deep, as well as the capacity for whales to listen and respond to one another’s songs, teach us the importance of really pulling out the relevant information, and paying better attention virtually in order for information to travel deeply to one another?

Another aspect in whale communication are “dialects”: It has been recorded that different vocal “dialects” have been found to exist between different pods within the same whale population. This is most likely so that whales can differentiate between other whales within their pods and as well as outsiders whom do not belong to the pod.” (2)

The unique vocal dialect of each whale pod relates to the concept of knowing your tribe. Knowing your tribe in your company or pod in the ocean can aid survival or have your back in challenging situations and brings a new sense of power and energy.

Listening and interpreting in a virtual team means “clustering” the essence. Therefore, the power of the communication and the depth of the communication is what matters, not the amount of communication done.

Do virtual teams need to develop their own “dialect” to better feel the collective team energy, a sense of belonging and psychological safety?

It would be interesting to deepen the research; what rhythm, bursts, diversity and deep work without interruption work works best for each team?

Author: Dr. Andrea Sibylle Claussen. Research marine biology: Chryssea Michaela Johnson

Photocredit: Peter Marshall Photography



(2), Why do whales make sounds?, 2021

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