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Business | management skills | people development

Les Hayman 20-Jun-2010
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I have been regularly surprised about how many Managers I come across who believe that a valid Management approach is to look for people to do something wrong and then to help them correct it. I surmise that this satisfies two basic urges that these managers must have. The first one is that it gives them a chance to prove that they are more skilled than their subordinate, and therefore justify their elevated position, and secondly it gives them a chance to show that they have retained the Vocational skills that made them the brilliant “engineer” that they were in the first place. For many this helps to overcome the worry that being just a “manager” is not enough.

I have always believed that this is totally the wrong approach, and I am reminded of a friend of mine in New Zealand who went through a rather messy divorce. After the departure of his wife and son, he realized that he was rather lonely and decided that he should get a puppy to keep him company during the evenings and weekends.

Unfortunately the puppy got into the habit of peeing on the floor of his bedroom.  Being a skilled “Engineer”, and seeing a problem that needed solving, he attacked this problem with incredible zeal. Every time that he found a puddle of pee, he would grab the puppy by the scruff of the neck, drag it into the bedroom, rub its nose in the pee, slap it on the rump with a piece of rolled up newspaper, and throw the puppy out of the window. ( he had a one story house so no need to call the SPCA). He could justify this approach by rationalizing that he had shown the puppy the problem (pee on the floor), had administered the resulting punishment (slap), and had shown the solution (do it outside).

After about 10 days of this the puppy started going into the bedroom, peeing on the floor and jumping out the window.

The problem with this approach to problem solving is that the puppy obviously understood the process. It was just trying to cut out the bits that it didn’t like …. It didn’t like having its nose rubbed in the pee nor being slapped with the newspaper.

People are no different.

When we make mistakes, none of us particularly like having our noses rubbed in it, neither do we like being punished for it.

As a result, when Managers take this approach to problem solving, the result is that people take the same approach as the puppy… they start to cut out the bits that they don’t like, such as being caught, reprimanded and punished, which means that mistakes often get hidden rather than being made visible and resolved jointly.

The way to train a newly acquired puppy to pee where you want it to, means that you have to dedicate at least the first weekend to training the puppy on what is expected. You do this by taking the puppy out to the required dog loo every 30 minutes or so, and waiting for the puppy to pee. When it does (and they do a lot), you praise it lavishly, and at the same time give it a command as it does the job. It will very quickly associate the praise and fuss with doing the job in the right way, in the right place, and very quickly the command (like “busy, busy, busy” which we use with our five dogs) becomes the suggestion to the dog that it is time it went outside and relieved itself. The early positive re-enforcement of the behavior that is required, quickly gets established as the pattern of behavior that should be followed.

In this respect, people are not very different.

You can achieve a lot more as a Manager by looking for your people to do something right, and then reinforcing that behavior with praise and reward, than by waiting for the mistakes. I understand that there are times when the mistakes need to be addressed, but if the culture of positive re-enforcement is the predominant one in the group, the need to occasionally address the problems becomes easier to deal with and has less negative impact on the group’s ability to work openly and well together.

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