|Why fight the dog?
||[Mar. 12th, 2013|04:42 pm]
Here’s a lesson I’ve circled around to several times in my life, but have now wholeheartedly embraced…and like all converts, I feel that your life too, would be much better, if only YOU would embrace it!
Luckily for you, I have only so much time to worry about your life. And Yankees in general make crummy proselytizers. We’ll tell you once. And then laconically raise an eyebrow and sigh when you continue to get it wrong. And wait for you to come to your senses. That’s about all we’ve got.
When I was a mere teen, my aunt was having her tiny California suburban garden landscaped. She had just adopted a German Shepherd. The man who came in to sketch out the plan, saw the dog in the backyard, asked how long she’d had him and then said “Let’s let him run around the yard for a couple of weeks until we see where he likes to go and then we’ll design the garden around his paths.” Which my grandmother (never one for animals in the first place) objected to. “That’s ridiculous, designing your garden around a damn dog. Lay out the paths the way you want them and the dog will have to use those!”
And the man shook his head and tsked. “M’am, I’m afraid that dogs and water will go where they will and it’s rarely worth the expense and trouble of trying to convince them otherwise. I can lay them where WE want them, but the dog will continue to follow his own path, ruining whatever is in his way. Why spend the rest of your life fighting with your dog? Just let him set out the path, use it and everyone will be happy.”
I thought that was an excellent point. But hyper-literal as I am, I mostly thought of it in terms of landscaping, routing drainage around the barn, etc. I admired the house in our neighborhood with an elaborate garden and a very wise boardwalk all along the front yard fence line, so their dogs could race back and forth along it, barking their fool heads off. Without that boardwalk there would have been, at best, a dirt path beaten down, or at worst, a lot of expensive plants ruined.
It circled around again, when I was doing a lot of work around training animals and animal behavior. When you are trying to teach an animal a specific behavior – a trick, if you will – the easiest way is to find something that they’re doing already that’s close, or has a kernel of it, and then reward them for it and start honing it into what you’re really looking for.
But I wasn’t able to apply it to others yet. I was still managing people from a “here is exactly how it needs to be done, now do it just like that” perspective. And sure, there are some people who are perfectly happy doing that. For a limited amount of time. While there are always some tasks that do need to be done in an exact matter, many don’t, really. And I was beginning to mesh my studies in animal behavior (a tight rein, a tight leash give an animal something solid to resist against. A rein/leash that alternates tight and loose, keeps an animal interested and engaged to see what’s going to happen next, and more likely to seek more clues from you) and human behavior (most people need a certain degree of autonomy to be happy, so your job as a manager is to ferret out all the ways you can provide that, where you can create boundaries, guidelines and philosophies as opposed to rules and still get the work done) And it was coming back to: Why fight the dog when you don’t have to?
I could spend hours and days trying to teach my people to take their dirty aprons downstairs, posting signs, reminders. I could reprimand them whenever they left them on a shelf upstairs, wadded up under the counter. Counseling, threats, embolisms. Or I could quit my bitching and just put a bin upstairs right THERE, where they take off their aprons, so that it takes more effort to wad it up and put it under the counter than it does to do the right thing.
A “bad” manager would say I caved. I would say I stopped fighting the dog.
What was my goal? Being right? Or getting the aprons disposed of properly? All too often, our goal – at work, at life, at relationships – is being RIGHT. Or righter than the other person, which is even worse, because then you’ve added the poison of wanting the other person to submit.
Wanting/needing someone to submit is a very bad sign. (Unless that’s your thing and it’s happening with consenting adults, in which case, that’s a whole DIFFERENT kind of thing that’s perfectly fine when everyone’s agreed to it and enjoys it. Not so much at work and with random friends and strangers.) People need to feel pride in what they do. Control. That they are valued as thinking, reasoning adults. Figure out how to get to your goal without limiting them, with as little leash tugging, rein yanking as possible. Don’t waste both your energies on fighting over whether the path should run HERE or THERE. If it’s not critical, use their damn path. Find a solution that accommodates what they’re doing or likely to do anyway. Focus less on changing THEM and more on changing the situation. Situations are often easier to change than people. Reserve the tight leash/rein for when it’s impossible to change the situation. If you’ve given enough slack and show enough disposition to work WITH them/FOR them along the way, they won’t fight it when there are no other options, because they trust that you’re not doing it as a power move, but because it MUST.
Working with volunteers has certainly honed my philosophy and skills on not fighting the dog. Autonomy becomes even more important, submission more poisonous. And you don’t have any recourse to the crutches of “they need this job/the money and will have to do it my way, or it’s the highway”. I almost wish I could go back to managing an operation with a lot of employees – having had this time to practice and learn, oh, I could a much better job!
It’s not just a work thing. I use it in my personal life all of the time. What’s the problem, what’s the goal? And then, how do I get there without fighting the dog?
Decades of thinking that I’m a lazy, broken person because I cannot hang up/put away my clothes, beating myself up for being a sloven. Until this: just get undressed in the closet, you idiot. You take off the jacket and Ooh, there’s a hanger right there at your right hand. As well as hangers for the skirt and blouse at your left. And you’re standing right in front of the shoe rack, so you can just take them off and kick them right under there. And there’s the bin for your pantyhose and the rack you hang your necklaces on. And the hook on which you hang your comfy-fuzzy afterwork clothes. All right there. So I can walk out changed, holding only things destined for the laundry hamper, which I have to walk by to get out of the bedroom. Which also led me to an important revelation: you know what’s really wrong with me? I don’t have places to put things. If there is a place to put things, I will put it away. If there is no place or no room in the proper place, I will pile it someplace. And that’s when it all breaks down.
Instead of trying to fix some personal flaw in myself, a very hard task at which I have steadily failed for decades – what I really need to do is make space and configure it properly. That’s an easier chore to tackle – and way more self-affirming. Those of you who know me may have noticed that the downstairs of the house is getting there. Upstairs…work in progress, but it’s no longer a personal behavior problem, just a layout and storage problem. But now it’s a logistical problem – and you don’t have to be a manager to understand that fixing a logistical problem is way easier than fixing a personal problem.
My cat sitters, love those kids to death. But they have about a 50/50 chance of laying Zombie GeezerCat’s pee pads down, absorbent side up. (I don’t need to explain how well plastic-side up works with cat urine, do I?) I could talk to them about it, show them how, which would probably accomplish my goal – or I could just start buying the ones that are blue on the plastic side and white on the absorbent side, which makes it painfully obvious which side should face up.
I am a klutz. To get to the laundry room, I go through a door in the living room, down a couple of steps and then through another door. There's no light in this stairwell, just natural light. So, at night it’s dark, especially since I have to shut the living room door behind me to corral the cats. I’ve thought about putting a light in there, but it’s due to be torn out and redone in the next year or two. And honestly, my hands are usually full so even if I had a light switch, I’d probably just try to tough it out. Usually I’m fine. But oh, about three or four times a year, I’m not paying attention and I can’t tell if I’m on the last step or all the way down yet. And about twice a year, I guess wrong. Wrong enough to stumble, fall into the bottom door, jam my ankle or knee, or knuckles, or whatever. I tell myself to always assume that there’s one more. But if I’m wrong, then I run the laundry basket into the door, punching the other side of the laundry basket into my gut, so that’s not necessarily a win-win, is it? Just be careful, I admonish myself. Twelve years of this, and that's not working. Should I beat myself up because I can’t remember to be careful? Because I’m hesitant to spend money on installing a light fixture that I’ll have to tear out again in a couple of years? What’s my problem – that I’m an idiot and I need to stop being an idiot? No. My problem is that I don’t know where the stairs end. So I tacked one of those rough stair treads on the very last stair, so my foot has a cue. And on the door at the bottom of the stairs, I drew two lines in glow in the dark paint and labeled the one that’s eye level when I’m on the last stair as “One More” and the one that’s eye level when I’m at the bottom of the stairs “Okay”. Because I'm going to do what I'm going to do, so rather than rail against my inability to be careful, I need to make the situation less dangerous. Don’t fight the dog if you don’t have to.
(You may perceive all that on the stairs to be overkill, but I just sprained my ankle from it AGAIN and have a deep-seated fear of falling down stairs and not being found before I expire. I don’t mind dying, but I’d rather not be all bloaty and gross when they find me. And leave a stain. Eeuw.)
But seriously, what I love about thinking this way is that now you’re thinking more often about solutions to problems, fixes and mends to things/processes, workarounds, rather than making people (including yourself) behave a certain way. Fixing people is hard. Forcing people to do things is hard. Forcing them to do things and expecting them to be happy about it, harder still. (Unless, again, we’re talking about people who do that for fun. Different paradigm.) Sometimes you have to, but try and reserve it for those times when you must. Trust me, given a choice between “my way or the highway” and “well, if that’s the way the dog’s going to run, then let’s put the path there"? You will be happier and more effective if you exercise the latter whenever you can.