Lessons I learned early in life through owning a dog and through being a basketball player stand true today. Being positive and gentle and encouraging go a long way in bringing out the best in animals and people.
When I was in university I had a dog, a beautiful border collie/German shepherd cross. Corky was a very young puppy when I got her, almost too young to be separated from her mother. She had a lovely disposition, always happy to see me and eager to play. I was inexperienced as a dog trainer, so I took advice and input wherever I could get it. As a consequence, I was firm and consistent.
Keeping a happy demeanor
One day I noticed that Corky cowered from me as I firmly admonished her for some misdeed. It was the lying down motion and the turning away of her head that caused me to stop dead. I reached down and gathered her in my arms and just held her and comforted her. Very quickly she forgot about my condemning and negative behavior and was right back to her happy demeanor.
I learned a big lesson that day, and it is something that has stayed with me. I suspected that our relationship and happiness would be better served if I were to take a more positive approach to my training and engagement with her. I never spoke harshly to Corky again because I understood my power to hurt her feelings. (And, yes, I do recognize that she was a dog.)
I have applied this lesson to people, too. A quote from psychologist Donald Laird captures the message well: “Abilities wither under faultfinding, blossom under encouragement.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the truth in this statement. People do better in positive environments.
That doesn’t mean that people cannot be coached to improve their performance. I was certainly on the receiving end of concerted efforts by several basketball coaches to make me a better player. Those concerted efforts may have included some raised voices, but in the midst of practice with a lot of ambient noise, that was the only way to get the message through. I wasn’t humiliated in front of my teammates or others, but my failures to execute were pointed out and I understood them. The consistent message was to do better next time, and I doggedly worked toward that goal.
A person who leads a team has an enormous responsibility to those people. The leader needs to appreciate and prioritize basic human motivation because the concept of getting the best out of people is embedded in everything for which a manager is responsible. Peter Drucker’s definition of the five responsibilities of a manager (namely, setting objectives, organizing work and assigning people, motivating and communicating, measuring and developing people) still stands today.
Except for a small minority, people go to work every day trying to do their best and contribute to their organization’s success. All too often people feel that others try to catch them doing something wrong so that they can pounce. If we all tried catching people doing something right and praising and encouraging that behavior, how much better could staff engagement and morale be?
Balancing respect and encouragement
I’ve learned that the complexity of life places challenges on even the strongest of people. And while work and career are important to so many of us, family, friends and responsibilities outside of work are far more important. Finding the right balance of respect and encouragement even while asking for higher levels of performance is the tightrope that a manager (whether at a team lead, supervisor, manager, director or executive level) must walk daily.