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My German Shepherd, Memphis, and Sustaining What We Learn

Teaching humans isn't usually as straightforward as teaching dogs. But the goals are the same.

July 31, 2012
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Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Top Stories - Frontpage, Employee Relations, Values, Ethics, Management Skills and Development
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As I write this blog, it occurs to me that everything I need to know about creating sustained learning I can learn from Memphis, my 5-year-old German shepherd, who is resting by my chair as she does every morning.

Our morning routine is well-established now. Every morning I get up early, make coffee and go upstairs to catch up on the news and email.

Memphis gets up, too, and either follows or leads me to the kitchen. She lies down, waiting until my coffee is ready. When I pick up the mug, she rises and goes with me.

On mornings when I work out, she heads for the elliptical machine, waiting patiently until I'm finished. Then she gets her ring toy. I toss it; she brings it back. We've both learned and share our drills; they're consistent and routine—our habits.

Our mornings didn't always work this smoothly. When Memphis was a puppy, they were much more chaotic. I needed to read books and go to classes so I knew how to teach her some basics—how to follow me when I get up, sit calmly when I work and fetch what I throw her toy (which has become a favorite activity between us).

The classes and reading were critical, but just the first step. What's really mattered in the long term is that I consistently applied the few standards I learned so they became familiar to her and habitual for me.

As an example, when I want Memphis to come with me, I've learned to use a particular tone of voice and a few guttural clicks. It's an auditory pattern that only means one thing and Memphis now knows what I expect when she hears it.

When we first started, I had to offer a lot of encouragement, stopping frequently to pet her when she followed me. Sometimes I gave her a treat. But those rewards aren't needed anymore because Memphis has learned the expected behavior.

Memphis now has expectations as to when I'll get up and what I'll do. And her participation in our habits has helped make me more effective in the mornings and increase my workouts.

Of course, teaching humans isn't usually as straightforward as teaching dogs. But the goals are the same. As I recently wrote, we've got to remember and apply what we're taught; otherwise the learning is temporary and ultimately pointless.

Workplace behaviors dealing with inclusion, civility and compliance need to be built the same way as any other traditions or rituals that govern our daily personal lives with one another or our pets.

The process starts with identifying a few clear behaviors that you want to become routine ways of "doing business." To turn the desired behavior into a habit, leaders at all levels must communicate specific standards in a consistent way and hold themselves and their team members responsible for meeting them.

It's a low-tech solution and harder than it sounds. But it works.

In the great workplaces where I have been, I've seen powerful rituals sustained over decades. In one great organization known around the globe, it's understood you don't bring in the competitor's products.

In another, you start every meeting with a safety talk. In another, you don't tell or circulate racial, sexual or similar jokes [that's my own workplace, I'm proud to say].

In each of these workplaces, leaders have set out the rules, kept repeating them and, when needed, enforced them.

The behaviors that are now a ritual began with leaders who set the standards. Others followed and repeated them and made them their own. Over time, the standards became customs, the way things are done.

As for Memphis and me, we both are in charge of our rituals. That's why they stick.

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