Dog eat dog? Take management lessons from Charlie

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Charlie was found in the woods, scrawny and ragged. He wasn’t what I was looking for when I visited the Blue Mountain Humane Society facility, but when I saw him, I knew he would be my dog.

I had never had a dog and had no idea what I was getting into, but neither did Charlie.

At the time, I was teaching an intro to business class and my students and I were just beginning to talk about management skills. Without planning it I discovered that Charlie was a near perfect teaching aid.

Before class started each day I would ask the students their advice about dogs: “Is this normal dog behavior? How do I get Charlie to ...?” He brought the dry textbook lessons to life in a way the students could easily understand.

Drop your expectations and deal with reality. I had known just two dogs before Charlie and they defined my expectations for how a dog behaves. But Charlie was nothing like those dogs. And Charlie’s experience with people had him cowering in fear or ready to attack. He didn’t understand that the bowls of water and kibble were his and I would refill them every day and take care of him.

Charlie’s and my expectations of each other were way off and it’s the same with a new employee and boss. If your old boss was easy going, don’t assume the new boss won’t care if you are late and forgetful. And just because you hired a few young clunkers, don’t assume that any young person will be a problem.

What a person can do or how he or she will behave will depend on that individual’s experience, skill and character. Get to know the person you are working with and drop all assumptions or expectations.

With trust comes tolerance. When Charlie realized he could trust me and that I would take care of him, he would submit and tolerate some pain as I did the things necessary to keep him clean and healthy. He allows me to change his bandages after surgery, work the burrs and sap out of his fur and do the grooming that he hates. He knows I will be careful and cause him as little pain as possible.

I am thankful to have worked for some managers who told me what I needed to hear, whether I liked it or not. Sometimes it was painful. They made sure I got the training and experience needed and that the lessons sank in and my skills improved or behavior changed. I listened and learned because I trusted them and knew that they wanted me to succeed.

Only a valued reward motivates. Food treats and toys do not interest Charlie enough to be effective training rewards; affection and belly scratching are his currency. Charlie lives to be loved and petted. I wasted money on toys and treats that Charlie ignored before I figured this out.

So many employers want to hand out a reward or a thank you but miss the mark and waste money in the process. My co-workers and I have received 5-inch square cheese boards, tubs of lychee nuts and a mouse pad with the boss’s photo on it.

But the most boneheaded thank you to the troops came after we had worked 12 hour days for several weeks and the boss announced a movie night at work as a token of appreciation. We just wanted to get home and away from the boss and work.

Many years ago one of my favorite managers gave me a tiny, inch-high bottle of Tabasco sauce with a note attached: “When you’re hot you’re hot, and when you’re not I hope you are working for someone else.” This was his thank you for persevering on a challenging new sales incentive plan. I still have the note. Rick was a master of the small, personal thank you that showed he knew us as individuals.

Bad behavior is predictable and preventable. When Charlie is planning to sneak some paper from the recycling bin he walks in very slow motion and looks away from me. The show he puts on is worth the mess I have to clean up, so I let him sneak some paper every now and then.

When a supervisor knows his or her employees well and monitors behavior, a lot of problems can be prevented. Talk regularly and keep track of what is going on. Know who is doing well and who is struggling, and you can head off problems before they get big and messy.

With a very limited vocabulary Charlie taught us the key to management: show you care about me and I will trust you to lead me.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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