They’re learning – but from who?

Posted on July 20, 2009


Kai - flat-coat retriever/chow mix

Kai - flat-coat retriever/chow mix

Miniature poodle

Miniature poodle

Kai is our older dog, about 10 years older than Rustle. He’s also the superior dog in our pack. He’s not an Alpha, and he doesn’t try to be the way he used to. Rustle, however, knows that Kai is above him in the pack hierarchy. You might think, as I did, that Rustle would learn from Kai the way puppies learn from adults in the pack. It turns out that, in most cases, the opposite is true.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that Kai must have spent the first few years of his life without another dog for companionship. He knows how to behave around people, and he’s pretty good with cats. I’ve seen him behave very well around puppies. However, I’ve observed that he doesn’t know how to play with other dogs. He knows how to take toys from them. He knows how to play chase – and he’s just as happy to be chased as he is to chase. When Gryffin, our yellow lab, was still with us, Kai learned how to wrestle. Gryffin was Kai’s height and length, roughly, but weighed more. The only way for Kai to assert himself was to wrestle.

Kai jumped fences. Gryffin dug under them. Kai learned to dig – mostly scrapes, shallow troughs where he could lie down, but he helped Gryffin escape the yard once or twice. I never saw Kai staring when Gryffin dug, but he must have been paying attention. Rustle likes to kick his hind legs after going to the bathroom – it’s an instinctive behavior meant to spread his scent and better mark his territory. Kai never did that until he saw Rustle do it. He never seems to be paying attention, but when Rustle’s behavior gets him something that Kai wants, Kai is perfectly happy to adopt the successful behavior.

Your direct reports aren’t much different, although they’re generally behaving consciously and intentionally, rather than instinctively. For example, when I needed to learn more about Excel, I went to a co-worker who I had observed was better with the program than I was. I didn’t go to my supervisor. Seems normal, right? The trouble is that it’s happening constantly, and not just about job skills. Have you ever noticed that when you come back into the office from vacation or from a business trip that your team has adopted some behavior that rubs you the wrong way? This process is why that happens. You weren’t there to teach them, so they learned from someone else.

There are differences between managers and leaders. One of them is this: A leader does more than hand out assignments, enforce deadlines, and do paperwork. A leader leads – by teaching, coaching, and training, as well as by setting an example. You can’t lead if you’re not present. Whoever is present, and training your team, is the leader – regardless of job description or title. I know my dogs learn from each other, so I watch that and intervene when the behavior isn’t something that I want. At the same time, I try to provide enough input and stimulation that they’re busy learning from me.

Here’s a great way to demonstrate innovation, at the cost of a few friends – suggest to senior management that managers of your level don’t need offices. They need a plethora of small conference rooms with telephones. Sitting in the midst of your bullpen gives you more leadership opportunities, and when you need a private meeting or a private phone call, you can use one of the small conference rooms.