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What My Dog Taught Me About Management

By Julian Mercer

I recently adopted a rescue pup, a highly intelligent and energetic mix of shepherd, husky and border collie that keeps me on my toes. Although she is very sociable, training was essential, and I’ve spent the past few months working with dog trainers. As any dog owner who has worked with professionals knows, dog training is often more about training the owners than it is about training the dog. There are certain fundamental principles you have to master that are very intuitive, but hard to implement without developing awareness of your behaviors as a dog handler. The right behaviors, both for the dog and the handler, are then refined through practice.

It occurred to me that many of these behaviors are important for managers in the workplace as well. So far, I’ve identified five principles that I think apply in both spheres, and that can enhance the effectiveness and performance of any people manager.

Positive Reinforcement

Just like dogs respond well to treats and praise, employees thrive on positive reinforcement. Recognize and reward their achievements, both big and small. A simple “good job” or a token of appreciation can go a long way in motivating your team. When employees feel appreciated, they are more likely to stay motivated and engaged.

While working with a dog, it is very tempting to try to bribe your way out of bad behaviors by offering treats. Rewarding them to stop barking or to drop trash they picked up on the street merely encourages them to repeat the behavior to earn more treats. Better to redirect them to a positive behavior that can be rewarded. With dogs and with people, it’s very important to reward the desired behaviors or outcomes and avoid inadvertently encouraging bad habits.

Clear and Consistent Communication

Effective communication is a cornerstone of dog training, and it’s equally crucial in personnel management. Clearly convey expectations, goals and responsibilities to your team. Maintain consistency in your communication style and invite feedback. Just as a dog trainer uses consistent commands, a manager should provide consistent guidance to avoid confusion.

Patience and Understanding

In dog training, patience is key to success. Similarly, be patient and understanding with your employees. Use mistakes or failed outcomes as learning opportunities instead of meting out punishments. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and it’s your role as a manager to help them improve. Work on developing their skills and providing guidance and mentorship. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are exceptional employees.

Individualized Training

Dogs come in different breeds and temperaments, requiring tailored training approaches. Likewise, employees have unique skills and personalities. Recognize these differences and adapt your management style to suit each individual’s needs. Assess each person’s strengths and weaknesses, formulate development plans and craft training opportunities tailored to help each employee reach their full potential.

Consistency and Routine

Dogs thrive on routines, and so do employees in the workplace. Establish and follow clear routines and processes within your team to create a sense of order and predictability. This helps employees understand what’s expected of them and reduces stress. Just as a consistent schedule makes a dog feel secure, a structured work environment can improve productivity and job satisfaction

Closing Notes

I hope no one takes offense at my analogy or thinks I’m suggesting people should be trained like dogs. That is not the point. The point is that managers will be more effective at their jobs if they work to develop the same types of behaviors essential to dog trainers, such as clear communications, patience and consistency. It’s just a reminder that much of what makes a good manager good is grounded in common sense and can be developed and refined through mindful practice.

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Julian Mercer

Julian Mercer is a retired executive, with more than 30 years’ experience in the technology sector as a leader, manager, consultant, and teacher.

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