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Taking Responsibility: what dog training can teach us about management

Leading a pack of dogs is project management.

Leading a pack of dogs is project management.

 

After many years of traversing the globe as a strategy consultant, family and health issues dictated a travel respite for a few years. During part of that interim period, I turned a hobby into a business and became the owner of a very active full service dog training and behavior modification business. Several hundred people and their dogs came through our doors each year. The consultant in me saw quickly that we mismanage the dogs in our homes in much the same way we often mismanage people in business. The parallels are innumerable, but for this blog I will narrow in on one area that is essential: if you are in charge, take responsibility for what runs amok.

My dog understands exactly what I want from him, he’s just stubborn (or stupid)  is one of the most common things dog trainers hear from hapless owners. This is echoed by consultants who finish a strategy project and say, we came up with a brilliant strategy but the clients are idiots, and couldn’t implement the plan. We hear project managers complain, We communicated exactly what we wanted to our team. Everyone left the meeting in agreement – then they did it all wrong! How could they do that?

When we are clear on what we want and we express it, it is often truly unfathomable to us that someone else doesn’t see it, hear it, and understand it in the same way.

Yet, generally speaking, neither dogs nor people wake up in the morning with a diabolical plot in mind to irk and undermine everyone in their path. Both humans and canines generally want to do the right thing. They thrive when they are being appreciated, when their environment is positive and they can be rewarded in whatever ways are meaningful to them.

Then why do they (the dogs or the team) sometimes do the exact opposite of what we want them to?

It usually comes down to one or a combination of three simple things:

  •  they have no idea what we really want them to do
  • they are not motivated to do what we want them to do
  • they are not capable of doing what we want them to do

When I see a dog owner shouting “heel, heel” while being hauled down the sidewalk by a pulling frothing canine at the end of a leash, I am often reminded of the person speaking to someone in a foreign language, shouting words louder and louder when the person doesn’t understand, as though volume would uncover the mystery of the meaning of the words. As far as many dogs are concerned, “heel” is just some noise their owners produce while making jerking motions on the leash as they follow the dog down the street. The dog has no idea why the person does this. After all, if the person keeps following the dog while the dog pulls on the leash, the dog logically concludes that pulling on the leash is the right way to steer humans around. All that jerking and shouting is a mysterious but perhaps necessary part of the process.

As Project Managers we all know clear communication is critical and there are plenty of texts and seminars out there to tell us how to hone our communications and listening skills. But we sometimes forget that, no matter how good our skills are, miscommunication and misunderstanding will still happen even when everyone’s intentions are impeccable. We are, after all, human beings with our very unique and complex filters for interpreting what we hear. Our team members will have unique filters of their own through which they have interpreted the agreed upon actions and sometimes they may be as far afield as the misguided dog at the end of the leash.

When a project runs awry and you are ready to blame team members for doing the wrong thing, hold back. Start with the assumption that everyone wanted to do the right thing. It is probably true. Everyone definitely had some reason for doing what he or she did in that particular way and it is very rarely from a desire to be obstreperous.

When our dogs behave in ways we find offensive or irksome, the dogs usually have surprisingly reasonable reasons for doing so. Dogs may vary in temperament, tractability, proclivities, talents and intelligence, but whatever dog we have, we are ultimately responsible for how they behave. With rare exception, every dog can be taught basic pleasant behaviors like not pulling on the leash, greeting guests without jumping on them, sitting when asked, and so forth.

When owners accept responsibility for their dogs’ behavior, they can often see how they might have encouraged the “wrong” behavior. By understanding what actually motivates their particular dog, by understanding what their dog’s capabilities are, and by taking the time to learn how to actually teach in a way the dog can understand, owners will be rewarded by delightful companions. On the other hand, dog owners who blame their dogs’ behavior on the dogs’ stubbornness or stupidity, will always live with jumping, barking, begging, pulling, confused and rather more stressful companions.

As Project Managers we work with all kinds of people with varying skills, talents, temperaments, proclivities and intelligence, it is our responsibility to make sure they truly understand what they are supposed to be doing, that they have the capabilities required, and are motivated to do what we are expecting. When things go awry, we will most effectively lead our team back on course when we assume responsibility rather than focus on assigning blame. From that framework, we will see the nuances of the issue and correct course with the support and strength of our team members.

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About the Author

Michèle Taipale is a versatile and multi-faceted international consultant who brings energy and passion to the people around her. She has had extensive experience leading global project teams and developing and delivering customized leadership and management programs for Fortune 500 companies. As an entrepreneur who has started a range of small businesses throughout her career, practical experience helps her understand organizational issues from multiple perspectives. She is a creative and passionate advocate for human potential. She recently moved to the Bay area and founded MMT Strategy & Facilitation with a commitment to helping organizations improve the efficacy, well-being and resilience of their workforce using solidly researched modalities in the field of positive psychology for improving corporate leadership, innovation, resilience and profitability. She has an MBA from the Wharton School, an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA from the University of Montana and is a Fellow of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute for International Studies. She has been a member of Ellen Langer’s Mindfulness Lab in the Psychology Department at Harvard University and is a certified coach.
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