Management lessons we can learn from a dog

The following guest blog was written by Robin Eichert of PeopleSense Consulting. You can find more dog-inspired leadership lessons on Robin’s blog, called Graceful Leadership. Thank you, Robin!

What’s a dog got to do with being a good manager?

Lots! Just ask Grace, a Puerto Rican street dog, who is now a long-time resident of southern New Hampshire, happily enjoying warm sunbeams from the comfort of her living room sofa.  She might not be making the rounds on the management trainee circuit, but she is constantly offering ideas, tips, and lessons — as long as I’m listening, that is.

Several years ago, when I adopted my dog, Grace, I immediately started noticing the parallels between our interactions and the interactions of managers and employees in the workplace. Grace is a shy, fearful dog that lacks confidence. Her insecurity started to create signs of aggression, with some growling and bearing of the teeth that frightened me. I thought, “This isn’t working. I need to fix this dog.” So I met with a behaviorist and as I sat there, letting the information sink in, I realized there was nothing wrong with Grace (aside from being afraid). I was the problem. I needed to provide her stronger leadership, more direction, more security, and more support in order for her to be her best.

What better lesson for a manager when faced with a challenging employee? As a manager, there is a tendency to want to “fix” the other person, to change them or what they are doing. But a better solution is to understand why the employee is struggling in the first place and work alongside them for some resolution.

Start by asking some of these questions:

  • Does he understand the assignment?
  • Does he have the right tools to do the job?
  • Does she need additional training?
  • Are the expectations realistic, given her skills and work style?
  • Can this employee truly speak openly about their concerns and obstacles?
  • Will challenging the status quo be rewarded or punished?
  • What motivates her?

Managers have the daunting task of accomplishing work through others. In order to do that successfully, they need to treat each person individually, recognizing their unique strengths and work style, to ensure everyone is working in the most productive way. It’s a mistake to think that one technique will work for everyone. For example, just because one employee craves the details of a project, doesn’t mean his teammate will. Tap into the interests and strengths for everyone to find the right balance.

The best outcomes result when a leader takes the time and effort to understand what is unique about each individual employee and interact with them differently. Sometimes we get caught up in projecting what we think someone else wants or should do, rather than look at the situation from their perspective. For example, kind and caring friends of ours often want us to bring Grace to their home when we visit for dinner. But the loud commotion of a large group is not Grace’s idea of a fun night. In fact, the opposite: it’s a very frightening experience. She’s content to stay at home and welcome us upon our return. As much as I’d love to have her there, and she is welcome to be there, it’s not the right thing to do for Grace. What unnecessary actions are you requiring of your employees that is creating stress rather than enriching the relationship?

Even after the several years we’ve been together, Grace continues to teach me.  Your employees can, too, if you’re listening. What lessons are staring you in the face?