You can be threatening or calming
“You have a choice: you can be threatening or calming.”
That’s what I read in an enlightening book entitled “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals,” by Turid Rugaas. The author talks about our relationships with dogs, and of course, I also see the applications between manager and employee.
Rugaas talks about how frequently we, as humans, have a one-way relationship with a dog. We demand things and the dog responds. When we see a well-behaved dog, we often think the relationship is solid. But that’s not always the case. If a dog is responding out of fear, that relationship is not strong, nor healthy. When we work together with the dog, allowing for mutual understanding, the motivation and compliance for desired behavior will always be richer. Her book talks about a dog’s language and how to interpret signs: signs that we may even take as being aggressive but are really a sign that the dog wants us to calm down.
The main lesson that jumped out to me from this short, but information-packed book is that in any interaction, you have a choice. You can either be threatening or calming.
On the surface, that seems straight-forward. And given that I’m generally patient and easy-going, I don’t see myself ever threatening to Grace. Yet it’s important to think about how Grace would see the interaction.
On our Sunday morning walk this past weekend, Grace ran a bit farther off the trail than I felt comfortable with. She started barking at something. She tends to growl at many benign things, like a blowing leaf or a fallen tree branch that could have startled her. But I didn’t want her out there scaring wildlife, nor risk the chance of a large animal ready to attack her. I called her to me. She stayed out in the distance, intent on whatever she saw. After several attempts and still not getting her attention, I felt my frustration and concern rising, and my voice becoming stern and loud. For Grace, that would be a threatening sound, not a calming one. I caught myself, thinking about Turid’s words – I was on the verge of creating an atmosphere where Grace would have two things to worry about – this mysterious thing in the woods scaring her and me being upset at her.
It makes me think about interactions between humans, so often when there is a different perspective. Just the other day, I heard a manager talking about an employee in her organization, saying he was lucky to be employed and his performance better step up or else that job wouldn’t be there for him. Threatening or calming? That isn’t the kind of sentiment that would engender an improvement in job performance. It shuts people down and makes them resent you.
I remember a boss I had many years ago that managed by fear. You always felt like you had to walk on eggshells around him. That is not when employees do their best work, when they are more worried about the ramifications of any action, as opposed to stretching their talents, becoming creative and taking calculated risks that result in extraordinary outcomes.
Next time you feel your blood pressure rising, remember you have a choice. You can create a threatening or a calming atmosphere. If you’re interested in the best outcomes, you already know which choice to make.