• Andrew Wien

What dog training taught me about relationships (with humans)

I have a two-year-old Silver Lab. Sometimes he is the best dog in the world, and other times I want to yank him by the leash to teach him a lesson. I’m learning that in these times, it’s really me who needs the lesson.

Chalten is a fast learner. In as short as 10 minutes, he has learned to roll over, never go up the stairs, and to drop the stick before entering the house. Every time I’ve put in focused effort, he has learned exactly what I’ve wanted.

He also has bad habits. Chalten loves pulling on his leash, saying hi to other dogs by growling, and taking his time to come back from peeing when I’m trying to go to bed. How can he be so great in some situations and so hard to control in others?

A dog is a simple animal. Chalten doesn’t hold grudges, come to the next meeting distracted by something that just happened, or have conflict in his personal life. If he shows up to each interaction essentially the same, then what is different?

Duh! It’s me. I have trained him, intentionally or not, to behave exactly as he does. For example, when he pulled on his leash, he got to continue to walk. What fun! Of course, in 10 minutes I was able to train him to stop pulling on his leash.

As dog owners, we train our dogs constantly, whether or not we realize it. We are responsible for how our dogs behave. If our dog does something wrong, we are the ones who could have prevented it.

While people are obviously more complicated than dogs, there are some parallels. Just as we train a dog both actively and passively, we are training the people around us all the time, and likely a lot more passively than actively.

How are you training people to interact with you? How would your work environment be different if you took more responsibility for their actions?

For managers:

  • If your direct reports struggle to make decisions without you, how are you training them to need you?

  • If some don’t receive difficult feedback effectively, how are you making it hard to receive?

  • If your team is in conflict, how are you encouraging this?

For independent contributors (aka worker bees):

  • If people expect you to reply to email quickly, how have you been training them to expect this?

  • If you don’t know how you are performing, how are you making it difficult for your manager to give you feedback?

  • If you are always interrupted by urgent things and can’t find time to work on what’s important, how are you encouraging people to interrupt you?

This way of thinking requires all of us to take a radical amount of responsibility for what happens around us. It also requires self-reflection and assertiveness. While not everything is in our control, we have the power to influence a lot more than we’d expect. Taking responsibility is the first step to be able to focus on the things within our control and get to the outcomes we want.

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