Establishing rules works in tandem with freedom of choice

When traveling in a car, it’s more challenging to get her to stay in her bed (as shown here in our bed). But I finally figured out that if I allow her to make the decision, it works much better than me trying to force her there.

We all need rules. This doesn’t hinder our ability to be creative or have decision-making abilities. I think these are often confused. In the last post, I described how Suzanne Clothiercreates interactions between a dog and a human where dogs have a level of decision-making. When a dog can figure out a situation on their own, they are much more likely to comply with what you want, versus being forced into some behavior.

I tried an experiment this weekend. Many Sunday mornings, we drive to a different location for a walk in the woods in search of mushrooms. Sometimes we drive ten minutes, sometimes an hour. Grace whines a good portion of the drive, perhaps from excitement, or maybe nervousness, I’m not sure. We’ve tried a lot of things to get her to be calm and quiet in the car, without much success. I thought about Suzanne’s approach and wondered how I could get Grace to make this decision on her own.

My idea was to give her a nice treat (small cubes of deli turkey meat) when she sat quietly in her bed. The only time she’d get the treat is when she made the decision to go in her bed on her own. No tempting, no luring, no asking from me. When and if she went to her bed on her own accord, then she’d get a nice treat. It would be my way of saying, “Thank you, good job!”

This past Sunday, she knew I had the turkey and she’d come sit in my lap, she’d paw at my hand and arm, she’d whine. I said nothing to her at all. As soon as she made her way to the back seat and landed in the bed, she got a treat. If she stayed there at a stoplight or a turn (when she normally would be up and looking, whining louder and louder), I’d give her a treat. It really worked!

After the second time, I could see that she was already making the connection and she willingly rested in her bed for much of the trip. At the very end of the drive as we pulled into the parking area, she lost her composure and reverted to her old ways, but in a 45-minute timeframe, our ride was dramatically different from past ones.

There were rules in this “game.” And after a short while, I could see her become focused on the activity, and taking initiative on her own part to play by these rules. This puzzle became an interesting challenge for her, as opposed to her being bored or nervous as she has been during previous rides.

In a recent conversation I had with a manager about an employee who was struggling in their work, we talked about ensuring that the employee had ownership for the solutions to improving. We need to engage individuals in the problem-solving, but we first must establish the rules that exist. For example, what is the timeframe for improvement? What is expected from the employee? What will happen if the results aren’t good? Both the manager and the employee should agree on the outcomes, including a determination of the quality of the work needed (the manager makes the final decision if there is a difference of opinion); the decisions about how to accomplish it should be driven by the employee.

Remember to be patient—don’t lure with treats too soon—allow the person to make their own choices and perhaps make a mistake or two as they figure out the best methods for success. Before I gave Grace the permission to make her own decisions about riding in the car, the rules were unclear and confusing to her. She could sit in my lap; she could sit in her bed, she could sit quietly or whine and aside from the occasional “shhhhhhhhh” or “noooooooo”, there was virtually no difference in the environment from her perspective.

Are you sending mixed signals to your employees by saying little or nothing when things go wrong? Employees need to know what the boundaries are for performance. What am I working to accomplish? What is my goal? Can I miss by a little? Or by a lot? What will happen if I don’t do what I say I was going to do? The manager needs to be clear on the desired goal, too. In absence of this, how can anyone achieve it?

Also be sure you know how much flexibility you can afford when things don’t go the way you hoped. What will happen if the goals are missed? Sometimes it might be ok, yet at other times it could be devastating to the organization. Be sure you communicate those parameters to everyone involved. Give others the freedom to make decisions but ensure that you both understand the rules first.

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8 comments

  1. annie says:

    ahhh, so simple but why don’t we live this way? Knowing what the rules/expectations are makes it possible to hit the mark. Otherwise, it’s a guessing game, isn’t it? You blog is wonderful.

  2. didiwright says:

    I’m happy to return to such great news about Gracie’s progress. I know how concerned you were about her behaviour in the car, so you must be so pleased. Well done, it sounds like such an easy solution, doesn’t it? I bet you asked yourself how come you hadn’t thought of it before…It happens to all of us, I’m glad it’s resolved. Grace is a clever girl, and all she needed was for you to set the rules that she needs to follow.
    I think it’s the same in a job, and it’s definitely the same with kids. As a teacher, I found that my students were always better behaved when they knew the rules and the consequences of not playing by these rules. As a parent, I found that my child was happier and better behaved when she knew what she could or could not do and what was expected of her. As a dog owner, I found that the same applies…Just like Grace, George responds well to clear rules and rewards, and is most unsettled in ‘fuzzy situations’.
    We’ve already agreed that communication is essential. I guess clarity is essential to good communication.

    • Yes, it was simple but not easy! It’s so tempting to want to coax her back to her seat versus allowing her the time to make that choice on her own. And totally agree that these lessons can easily come from parenting and other leadership roles, such as teaching. Any interaction can be improved by having clear expectations. Thanks for your insight!

  3. hereisviv says:

    A synchronicity! After a conversation with my boss yesterday about the importance of giving employees the power of choice and clear consideration of consequences within a framework decided by management (because that is our job) I did some googling. Your site made the most sense (and believe me I have learnt a lot of complex stuff about philosophy and ethics along the way!). In the background of my life I am deciding whether or not to get a companion dog for my gorgeous kelpie x lab Coco so it amused me greatly that I got the most from a discussion about dog training! Kids are the same ….I should remember this wisdom in all areas of my life eg my behaviour and my husbands. Thanks heaps!

    • Your comment made me feel so good — I’m glad it was helpful. I do agree that there are so many connections between the different relationships in our lives — whether family, friends, pets, children, or work colleagues. There is a lot to learn from each! I would love to hear more about your philosophy and ethics knowledge; and good luck with your decision about another dog. Coco sounds special. Glad you found me and thanks for posting your thoughts!

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