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Archive for March 2011

Going through a tunnel can lead to success

This was taken last year when Grace was learning to go through the tunnel. As you can see, she was perfectly happy to stay outside of it!

The jumps are so easy for Grace. She looks like a ballerina effortlessly springing over the hurdles. She knows it, too. She’ll leap over the bar whenever she even gets close to a jump, whether I say “Jump!” or not. It’s fun for her and she’s good at it.

Returning to agility class last Friday was gratifying. Grace picked up as if we hadn’t been away from it at all. Her tail was up and wagging and she pranced around the room as if she owned it. Almost too much…. She got a little snippy with a very beautiful and kind dog as they met for the first time. I imagine Grace just assumed she was Queen of All Agility and didn’t want to share the space with anyone else. (It’s a bit embarrassing when you have an ill-mannered child in public.) She also whined obnoxiously when the trainer, Rachel, was explaining the next round of skills we’d be practicing. She couldn’t quite figure out why we were sitting and talking while she could be out jumping! Patience is not one of Grace’s strengths. But given how far she has come, I was so tickled watching her perform, but more importantly witnessing her enjoyment in the moment.

One of our exercises was for Grace to use discretion on her next move. In agility, the handler has to control (or should I say, attempt to control) where the dog goes next. Good handlers will direct well. Good dogs will execute well. It’s no different from being in a workplace, where it takes strong leadership to direct, in combination with competent, talented followers who execute.

In this particular event, there was a tunnel entrance placed directly beside the A-frame. I was to direct Grace to go to the piece of equipment that I intended, using visual and verbal cues. The A-frame is one of her favorites; she enjoys her ease in bounding over the incline, (dogs are supposed to slow down upon exit of it–now that’s a test!). Grace loves to run fast so when she sees the A-frame, she gets excited, ready for action. It’s not that she doesn’t like the tunnel, just easier to go up the A-frame instead of entering a closed tube. Even if she heard the word ‘tunnel’ coming out of my mouth, chances are good she would run up the A-frame, just because it’s more fun! Again, I know this happens at the office; people tend to gravitate to those activities they enjoy over ones that are less interesting to them if they can get away with it.

When working through this exercise, she did quite well. Much more often than not, she went where I asked her to go. If I wanted her to go inside the tunnel, I physically moved closer to the tunnel, almost blocking the A-frame. She could have edged around me to go up if she really wanted to, but she entered the tunnel. Going up the A-frame was always easy, all I needed to do was a simple upward signal of my hand in that direction and she was off and running. Some dogs love the tunnel, though, so you have to find ways to entice the animal, taking into account their individual preference and then create the precise motivation to do the “right” thing. As Rachel said, “We need to set up the dog for success; don’t even put them in a situation where they will fail.”

I believe those are very important words of advice for any organizational leader. We need to create an environment for success for employees, and that might mean different things for different employees, even if they are in the same role. What can you do to help your employees be in a position of success?

Agility courses teach confidence, and other things I wasn’t expecting

Grace on Pause Table

Grace sitting on Pause Table On her first day at agility, Grace crawled under this table! But just the very next session, she was much more comfortable on top, where she was supposed to be!

After a winter hiatus, Grace and I are returning to agility classes today. The room is indoors so it has nothing to do with the seasons, but just that I’ve found renewed energy for us to get back to “work.” Mind you, this is really a very fun time for us. In fact, the trainer, Rachel, remarked that Grace has walked into the room with a big smile on her face. And I know I enjoy it at least as much as Grace does, seeing the progress she has made is just one of the benefits to me.

Our first try at agility was last spring. I had heard from numerous people how the process of learning and mastering the various pieces of equipment and obstacles gives dog confidence, as well as a good source of exercise and entertainment. Sounded like a win-win situation. Grace is agile, fast, and fit, so I knew she would be able to physically excel and she proved that accurate. It was the mental focus that provided her the greatest challenge and also the most rewarding outcomes. On our very first day, she was hyper-alert and distracted by every foreign noise and movement. After about 30 minutes, she became so exhausted that she hid UNDER the “Pause Table” (a square platform for a dog to get ON). It was all so new and she was overwhelmed. But with time and experience, she now loves being in that environment and I absolutely believe it has helped her become more confident in all situations.

I was surprised at how much work this was me! In fact, it was at one of our last sessions that cemented my belief that we can learn from our exchanges with animals to improve our human interactions. Rachel had us working on a jump series, where it was my job to show Grace which of the three jumps to go through and from what direction. The jumps were aligned in a straight line so that the intent was to create the shape of an S in our jumping series. Rachel watched the two of us, then gave me this sobering feedback: “Grace is watching your every move for direction and you are sending her mixed signals about which way you want her to go.” Wow. I’m always telling people to be clear when they communicate! And here I was, not doing a good job at it myself. Rachel gave me some helpful suggestions that made my voice and body provide more congruent signals for Grace and I immediately became aware of how the subtle changes made a big difference. Then I quickly started to think about situations in my human interactions where I could become more effective in my delivering my intended message.

And so once again, Grace gave me the opportunity to look in the mirror and improve upon things that help her–but also me. I can’t wait to get back to our jumps today. Wish me luck!

“When a dog makes a mistake, I don’t get rid of him.”

A client remarked the other day about how this blog has made her think about her own dog and the correlation to the interactions she has with the employees at her company. “When my dog makes a mistake, I don’t get rid of him,” she said. “Instead, I try to find ways to avoid the mistake in the future, or I just say to myself: ‘well I don’t like that he dumps over the trash every once in a while, but overall he’s a good dog and I can live with [the trash dumping].’”

When I was telling my husband this story, he reminded me of a different situation we had recently heard about a dog owner that gave up her dog because it shed too much. Shed too much??? Dogs shed. Granted, some shed more than others, but you’ll always have some hair and dirt to content with. Shouldn’t you understand that before you make the decision to invite him as a member to the family?

Gaining access to all those wonderful smells in a kitchen trash can is a natural thing for a dog to do, just like some people have a natural inclination to do some things that we ourselves wouldn’t want to do. When you hire or manage an employee in your organization, how much tolerance do you have when they do something that doesn’t meet your expectations? Do you make efforts to give her the support she needs? Or perhaps direct her into a role that better suits her strengths? There is an appropriate time to mutually decide when an employee may not be a good fit for the position or the organization, but it’s always good to make sure other options are explored.

Well-intentioned people sometimes do unkind things

Kids freak Grace out. Their quick and aggressive movements scare her; she doesn’t know what their intentions are. Based on her street experiences as a pup, kids were known to torment dogs so she’s wary for good reason. In order to protect herself, she growls and bares her teeth hoping to get them to back off. We saw this play out last night when good friends were over for dinner and their active and adorable toddler tried to pet Grace a tad too harshly. It’s nerve-wracking to see Grace expose her teeth and the child gets an impression that Grace is a mean dog—understandably! She’s really not mean-spirited but she’s acting out in a mean way, for sure.

I see this within organizations all the time. Well-intentioned people sometimes do unkind things. If they feel threatened, they might do something to protect their own interests. I’m sure you can think of a number of examples, things like stealing a great idea you had or gossiping about a mistake you made on a project.

If that happens, what do you do? Give that person the silent treatment? Let your frustration fester? It’s certainly a natural reaction to get angry and pull away. But you need to address it constructively. Have a calm and respectful conversation, letting them see your perspective on the situation. Then the chances are greatly increased that similar occurrences won’t happen in the future. If you let it pass, you’re part of the problem. Be a part of the solution.

We do see progress with Grace handling stressful situations with more confidence. About an hour after snarling at the precious toddler visiting us last night, Grace was peacefully napping in her bed. Clayton was running through the living room and unintentionally fell right into her bed alongside her! But instead of snapping, she opened one eye and looked over as if to say: “Watch out next time, would ya?” Then she closed her eyes and went back to her nap. I guess she decided it wasn’t worth getting scared about.

The power of teams; saving lives in Japan

Dogs are amazing. Those of us who love our four-legged friends know that. But when I think about their ability to save lives, I am in awe.

A family member (thanks, Jen) alerted me to this: The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation has gone to Japan for a search and rescue mission; you can find more at: http://www.facebook.com/exploredogs

Think about the power of teams in this undertaking! When we combine the skills of a compassionate human willing to risk the dangers of the fragile environment left behind from the earthquake with a gifted dog that has possesses an unimaginable sense of smell, we create an extraordinary team doing remarkable work and saving lives.

The magnitude of team work is never more evident than in this endeavor.

Too frequently, we push aside those who have different skills than we do. I can’t imagine a more influential reminder to us all to incorporate someone on our team who has skills and talents that we lack.

Some people crave a process — others hate it!

My last post about routines created some interesting dialogue so I decided to explore this further. I know that Grace is better with a consistent routine, but as was pointed out to me, many people like variety in their day. For individuals who want autonomy and independence, a rigid environment will create frustration and burnout.

This past weekend, I had a fascinating conversation with two people in the health care industry on this topic. We were talking about the pros and cons of standardized processes that are designed to ensure the highest quality of care. If a procedure is too rigid, it might have the potential to get in the way of delivering the best care. However, if there are evidence-based protocols that prove superior results over other processes, it would be detrimental not to follow them. The challenge is to create a structure that allows flexibility; two diametrically opposed concepts. It gets more complicated when we realize that some people crave a process, others hate it!

Take the surgical checklist, for example. The World Health Organization endorses a standardized checklist for all surgeries, to ensure that some fairly basic items are covered, such as making sure you have the right patient and are about to operate on the correct body part. There are impressive statistics that prove a reduction in avoidable errors when using the checklist, so it seems like a no-brainer. Yet it has not been easy to implement the use of the checklist in many surgical rooms. Why? There were lots of reasons, including a sense of lost autonomy, and feeling like a simple validation task became onerous.

It is common for people who aren’t process-oriented to think of systems as a waste of time. So when we institute processes in the workforce, we have to be clear about the time needed versus return on investment. And we have to take into consideration the personal needs of those who will be required to follow them. What’s the risk if they don’t adhere to the process? For those who don’t like the feeling of being boxed in, they need to understand the bigger picture and impact they are having by following – or not following – the process.

I’d be interested to hear examples of routines that are beneficial to your work. When do they stifle creativity? Or when does a routine, or structured process, create the best outcome? What are the underlying characteristics that make them advantageous?

The value of a routine depends on who you are — but also what you do

I’ve heard that dogs can’t tell time. Yet, I know that Grace is fully aware of patterns in our day. You could set the clock by when she asks for her dinner. And when we turn off the TV at night, she immediately jumps from her bed and waits by the door until I get there for our walk. Coming in from outside, she will then head directly upstairs to her crate, never deviating or diverting from her routine. I think the routines are comforting for her. She knows what to do, what is expected of her, and there are no surprises to frighten or worry her.

Like Grace, some employees love a routine and they flourish in an environment that has consistency and constancy. They like knowing what they need to do and welcome the guidance and direction. Others would consider that setting boring and limiting, preferring to have variety and are more likely to thrive when things are always changing. They like to face new situations and enjoy the challenge of constant problem-solving.

There is not a right or wrong approach here. But it needs to match the job and the culture of the organization.

When we have individuals who are not in a setting that best suits their personality, it creates stress. Because Grace is so cautious around new people, she would be a nervous wreck if her day was spent in a place where different people were constantly flowing in and out. Think about the environment your employees are in. Does the normal ebb and flow of the day suit their style? Is there a co-worker who stays focused on their task and therefore becomes frustrated with interruptions? Or perhaps there is someone else who welcomes disruptions and doesn’t want to be boxed into a rigid schedule? What things can you to ensure the environment matches their style?

Lucky for me, Grace will let me know if I missed her meal time. It’s a nice reminder to me when I’ve forgotten her routine.

Meaningful motivation doesn’t happen by offering simple treats

Grace knows what the word ‘come’ means. When I ask her to come, she’ll obey more often than not. Of course, it’s always a bit more reliable if I have a treat in my hand and there isn’t a squirrel in sight. Yet as I stood in the freezing cold morning air, my second request to ‘come’ was being ignored. Grace likes to please me and she gets very nervous when she thinks I’m upset with her. Which made me think—what is it about that tiny, dormant twig on the ground that draws more interest than my voice?

Sometimes people take detours in their daily work, too. If you recognize inconsistencies in behaviors or outcomes—for yourself or someone else—it’s quite likely that it has something to do with the level of motivation. In order for a person to successfully complete any task, they must be able (through knowledge, experience, tools), motivated, and confident. If any one of those three conditions are lacking, something is about to go amiss.

Think of a situation in your workplace where a person was able and confident for the task in front of them, yet the performance didn’t meet your expectation. Once you learn why the distractions were more attractive than the alternative, you’ll be able to resolve the issue.

For consistent behavior, you need long-term, meaningful motivators (not just treats). People need to be interested in the objective, engaged in the decision-making, and appreciated when outcomes exceed expectations. What ideas do you have that would create an environment where long-term motivators exist?

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