TEACHING OLD DOGS NEW TRICKS

I have been regularly surprised about how many Managers I come across who believe that a valid Management approach is to look for people to do something wrong and then to help them correct it. I surmise that this satisfies two basic urges that these managers must have. The first one is that it gives them a chance to prove that they are more skilled than their subordinate, and therefore justify their elevated position, and secondly it gives them a chance to show that they have retained the Vocational skills that made them the brilliant “engineer” that they were in the first place. For many this helps to overcome the worry that being just a “manager” is not enough.

I have always believed that this is totally the wrong approach, and I am reminded of a friend of mine in New Zealand who went through a rather messy divorce. After the departure of his wife and son, he realized that he was rather lonely and decided that he should get a puppy to keep him company during the evenings and weekends.

Unfortunately the puppy got into the habit of peeing on the floor of his bedroom.  Being a skilled “Engineer”, and seeing a problem that needed solving, he attacked this problem with incredible zeal. Every time that he found a puddle of pee, he would grab the puppy by the scruff of the neck, drag it into the bedroom, rub its nose in the pee, slap it on the rump with a piece of rolled up newspaper, and throw the puppy out of the window. ( he had a one story house so no need to call the SPCA). He could justify this approach by rationalizing that he had shown the puppy the problem (pee on the floor), had administered the resulting punishment (slap), and had shown the solution (do it outside).

After about 10 days of this the puppy started going into the bedroom, peeing on the floor and jumping out the window.

The problem with this approach to problem solving is that the puppy obviously understood the process. It was just trying to cut out the bits that it didn’t like …. It didn’t like having its nose rubbed in the pee nor being slapped with the newspaper.

People are no different.

When we make mistakes, none of us particularly like having our noses rubbed in it, neither do we like being punished for it.

As a result, when Managers take this approach to problem solving, the result is that people take the same approach as the puppy… they start to cut out the bits that they don’t like, such as being caught, reprimanded and punished, which means that mistakes often get hidden rather than being made visible and resolved jointly.

The way to train a newly acquired puppy to pee where you want it to, means that you have to dedicate at least the first weekend to training the puppy on what is expected. You do this by taking the puppy out to the required dog loo every 30 minutes or so, and waiting for the puppy to pee. When it does (and they do a lot), you praise it lavishly, and at the same time give it a command as it does the job. It will very quickly associate the praise and fuss with doing the job in the right way, in the right place, and very quickly the command (like “busy, busy, busy” which we use with our five dogs) becomes the suggestion to the dog that it is time it went outside and relieved itself. The early positive re-enforcement of the behavior that is required, quickly gets established as the pattern of behavior that should be followed.

In this respect, people are not very different.

You can achieve a lot more as a Manager by looking for your people to do something right, and then reinforcing that behavior with praise and reward, than by waiting for the mistakes. I understand that there are times when the mistakes need to be addressed, but if the culture of positive re-enforcement is the predominant one in the group, the need to occasionally address the problems becomes easier to deal with and has less negative impact on the group’s ability to work openly and well together.

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4 Responses to TEACHING OLD DOGS NEW TRICKS

  1. Maureen O'Shea says:

    I still remember your “squeaky chair” parable used as an example of taking personal responsibility for finding a solution to a challenge … instead of aligning everyone else with the challenge! The others would never have noticed the squeaky chair if their attention had not been diverted to it.

    Nice fence by the way! Good job.

  2. Peltier says:

    Hi Less,

    Very good example, I couldn’t teach my dog the same way as my bedroom is at 1st floor and my dog, a Pyrenée Mountain Dog, would rather throw me through the window…

    • Les says:

      Bonjour Gerard,
      I love the imagery … I have met your dog many times, and have no doubt about the possibility.
      It is like the question of “Where does a 500 kg gorilla sleep ?”.
      The answer is “Wherever he wants”.

      Les

  3. Bruce Rankin says:

    Hi Les,

    I’ve heard you tell that story a couple of times over some 40 years! Always good. For a while I used to watch Dr Harry on Channel 7 – the highly popular Sydney vet show. He would invariably give the animal – mostly a dog – first a command then a food reward – every time it did what was required. Perhaps this is why “a dog is man’s best friend” – obedient and do what they’re told!!!!!!????

    One of the best courses courses I went on some 30 years ago as a ‘manager’ was a ‘Situational Leadership’ course while at Fujitsu about 1987. Run by a guy from Aust Institute of Management (AIM), he was ex-army, ramrod erect – and excellent.

    The course was (I think) based on the Hershey & Blanchard model of Leader Behaviours depending on Follower Readiness, with Leadership actions ranging from Telling (high Task /Low Relationship) Selling (High Task/high relationship), Participating and Delegating. Hope you get the general drift! It was highly practical with stacks of worked examples in groups over the 3 days. I found it invaluable in practice in working with people to use the most appropriate – and positive – leader behaviour for a good outcome.

    Before the course I didn’t want to go on ‘just another management course’. At the end I was asked to thank the course leader, so I got up and told the group I had now learned why I didn’t want to come on this course! It was because my manager was “telling” me to go, whereas he needed to adjust his leadership style to “selling” me on the value of my attending.

    At the end we were also given a little cartoon of a man with a net chasing a butterfly, with the caption “Catch someone doing something good today”. Ever since I kept it face up in my desk drawer at work as a constant reminder to ‘accentuate the positive’ and ‘ignore the negative’ behaviour. Not that I was always perfect at remembering that. But I do fully endorse the culture of positive reinforcement.

    So what do you do as a manager about addressing mistakes, bad decisions, inappropriate personal behaviours etc – when you can’t keep ignoring negative behaviour. Hopefully via a well thought out counselling session (that is part of company HR culture – VIP) involving praising any good things and gently constructively advising what behaviours need to change.

    One of the things I’ve encountered with young people brought up in a “praise/reward and ignore the negative” culture is the enormous self confidence that appears to be generated in so many. (Jack had more confidence at 18 than I had at 28.) But does this adequately prepare our youth for the realities of life in a competitive world, where there are indeed losers and they have not yet learned to deal with failures, losses and mistakes? I feel competitive sport is a great learning ground especially at school, to learn that you cannot be a winner every time and to learn to accept a loss gracefully.

    Jo has an example of a 30 year old son of an old friend and neighbour, very bright, studied and after three attempts finally completed a degree, went to the UK, pulled pints in pubs, bummed around in many jobs, none serious and finally returned to Sydney last year. He got a job as a recruiter in a personnel agency, and being highly enthusiastic and confident, he appeared to be doing very well. However he is also a cocky type and some of the expressions and language he used with managers at clients was just not appropriate. (Not bad language or rudeness tho.) He was taken aside by his manager and told that he could not speak to clients in such a manner. It gave him a huge shock as no manager had ever corrected him! Fortunately he listened and modified his language and manner. Hopefully he’ll be very successful.

    Another random thought…. back around 1969 I persuaded my IBM Christchurch Branch Manager – one Bob Tyrrell – to send me on a Dale Carnegie “Human Relations and Public Speaking” course. It was based on his 1935 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. The 30+ good human relations principles Carnegie espoused are as valid today as they were 75 years ago! The course ran for 14 weeks one night a week for four hours. I found it invaluable. One of the first three principles was “If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive”. ie start with yourself and “don’t criticise, condemn or complain”. Next “give honest sincere praise and appreciation”. ie the praise and reward culture you mention. My Mother had a similar saying that she abided by all her life: If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all!”

    Hopefully also illustrating that most of these basic principles are equally applicable to our family life and personal relationships – would that we could always remember that!

    Enough of my ramblings….. your blog is an excellent prompt for us readers.

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