I came to dog ownership at a relatively late age – we didn’t have pets when I was a kid, and consequently I grew up with something of a fear of a) dogs that were big enough to kill me and b) aggressive yappy dogs, although later that disappeared with some help from NLP. Fortunately, my wife eventually talked me into getting a golden retriever puppy, and from the moment I picked up this delightful little creature, my attitude began to change.

Wait – this isn’t going to be one of those ‘Marley and Me’-style articles about how a pooch overcame my cynicism and taught me to enjoy life and live in the moment. I’ve learned a lot of things from having a dog, but this post focuses on what she’s taught me about leadership – and how you can apply this knowledge in your own management career.

India was offering me lessons from pretty much the day we got her. She slept downstairs in the kitchen. In the early days she would sometimes bark in the night, and I would go down to comfort her and give her a biscuit. I remember one time even taking her for a (freezing) walk at 3AM to tire her out (we found a wallet in the street belonging to a friend’s son, which they were pleasantly surprised to get back the next day. I don’t think the kid had even noticed it was missing).

Going down at night didn’t seem to cure the barking. The next night, she did it again, and so on. Eventually (and with the help of the excellent book Don’t Shoot The Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training) I realised that I was actually making the problem worse. The reason being that every time I went down to her when she barked, I was ‘reinforcing’ the behaviour of barking.

Now, up to that point, I hadn’t realised this. I was just doing what seemed to be the obvious thing to do, not realising that the consequence of my actions was that I was reinforcing the problem I was trying to solve. In effect, by giving her my attention when she barked at night, I was training her to do it more often.

Here’s another example, and one which might be helpful to non-dog owners who encounter a dog. If a dog jumps up at you (not in attack mode, just standing on its hind legs and wanting to rest its front feet on you), it’s just being friendly. There’s no point telling the dog off – that’s just giving him attention and therefore reinforcing the behaviour. There’s even less point trying to lift your hands out of the way – the dog just thinks you’re holding something and jumps up even higher trying to reach it.

No, the thing to do is turn away and ignore the dog. Because there’s no behavioural reinforcement, the dog will just drop back down to its proper place on four legs.

Once you become aware of the unintended consequences of behavioural reinforcement, you start to notice them everywhere. I was once called in to coach a manager in a small design company, the stated problem being that she didn’t have enough ‘authority’ to get respect from the designers who were supposed to report to her. Instead of bringing their work to her to be checked, they took it straight to the owner of the company.

The owner, a very high-flying designer himself, could have backed his manager by insisting that the designers gave the work to her to check. Instead, he checked their work himself, not realising that he was reinforcing the problem behaviour.

Behavioural reinforcement is also at the heart of perhaps the biggest cause of stress for first-time managers – and, alas, many experienced ones. I’ve lost count of the number of managers who have told me that they have very little time left to do their own work because most of their working day is taken up being ‘pestered’ for answers (their words, not mine) by the people who work for them.

When questioned about what happens when people bring problems to them, it invariably turns out that when a team member brings a problem to them, they do their best to solve it for them. Perhaps they have a natural desire to help their team, perhaps they are micromanaging control freaks, perhaps, having recently been promoted from a technical role, they miss dealing with technical problems, which tend to be more easily definable than the people-related challenges of management.


When in a hole, stop digging

Or maybe they don’t know what else to do. To them, solving the problem themselves looks like the quickest way to get things moving again, and it probably is – in the short term. Unfortunately, every time someone brings you a problem and you solve it for them, you are training them – like you would train a dog, through behavioural reinforcement – to come to you every time they have a problem in the future.

Why would they even waste time trying to solve it themselves, if they know will come up with a solution if asked? Especially if, because of your greater experience, your solution is likely to be better than theirs? In solving their problems for them, you are making your own job harder and neglecting the most important part of a manager’s job – to help the people who report to you develop their own problem-solving and decision-making skills.

When these managers realise that unwittingly they have been reinforcing dependency in their team members, and making their own workload heavier, they change how they deal with the problems people bring to them. Instead of solving the problem straight away, they can ask, “How would you solve it?” or “What options have you thought of for solving it?”

This coaching style of management – ideally applied to challenges that require some thought or decision-making, rather than just requests for information that you have and they don’t – will help your team members to learn and grow, and very soon make your job easier as your team become more self-reliant and productive.

So, your challenge for today (should you choose to accept it) is to answer these questions:

What behaviours are you reinforcing in your team?

In what ways, that you haven’t been aware of up to now, have you been contributing to any problems that you face?

What desired behaviours, in yourself or others, have you not been reinforcing, and what could you do to encourage them?

Let me know how you get on!

What I’ve learned about leadership from my dog

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