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What I learned about managing people by training dogs

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Many of the most valuable lessons I've learned about business and management have come from spending time training dogs. Seriously.

What on earth do business leadership and training a dog to respond to "Leave it!" have in common? Dog-trainer wisdom has more relevance to business leadership than you might think because the golden rule for dog trainers is this: Choose your criteria and reinforce good behaviour like gangbusters.

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Any good trainer knows that a key problem for dog owners is that they haven't pinpointed and rewarded smaller efforts toward goal behaviours. Hand a fistful of cheese cubes to an inexperienced owner, step back and ask them to teach their dog to spin in a circle – you're not likely to see results. Why? They've most often failed to define – or reward – exactly what they want. Should the dog spin leading with his right leg? Or his left shoulder? The key to success lies in defining microcriteria and rewarding tiny movements in the right direction. Failure to do so only yields a really confused pooch, a frustrated owner, and a whole lot of cheese underfoot.

The same is true in business. Imagine: A software team hires a new project co-ordinator who comes with a laundry list of high-quality references. He spends three months working long days and late nights, preparing for a product launch. And then, right before the launch, the team realizes that the project hasn't met the mark. What went wrong? First, the project's scope wasn't defined, and clear criteria weren't shared. But it goes beyond unclear expectations – potentially dozens of reinforceable good-behaviour moments weren't identified mid-project, and assessment of the entire project came far too late in the process.

How often in business do we wait until the end of a project to evaluate success? How many times do we miss opportunities to reward staff for smaller measures of success?

Another golden rule for dog trainers is that while motivation is unquestionably the key to effective training, only the dog knows – and gets to choose – what motivates him. I've seen countless dog owners struggle, trying in vain to capture the dog's attention, convinced the dog ought to be motivated by praise, and if they just keep at it using a sing-song voice, eventually he'll listen. Meanwhile, the dog has other, far more fun things to do – such as digging holes and chewing on the new sofa cushions.

There's a distinct similarity in managing staff and creating effective business relationships. Many managers, aiming for engagement, will run employee appreciation days, send thank-you e-mails to clients or throw office parties in an effort to bolster motivation. What underpins all of these efforts, though, is a faulty assumption – the idea that those on the receiving end place high value on these efforts. People are nothing if not unique in their selection of motivators, and effective leadership and building business relationships means we need to stop making assumptions and start asking the questions: – What can I do to motivate you? What makes you tick?

One of my mentors once said: "If in doubt, use the squirrel." In dog training that means that sometimes you need to use your competition – such as a furry critter – to your advantage; in other fields it's known as Grandma's Law or Premack's principle. With dogs, this means rewarding him for listening to you by letting him tree the squirrel. In Grandma's kitchen, it means getting your picky toddler to eat her Brussels sprouts before she gets to have ice cream. Either way, Grandma's Law means that the unpleasant stuff actually gets done, and, in fact, motivation to do it increases.

In business, this has a number of applications. It might mean strategically answering 10 of your most time-consuming e-mails before turning your attention to that far more interesting advertising layout. Or it might mean asking your staff to deal with the draft of the budget forecast before enjoying that lively marketing meeting. Managers can use this principle to boost productivity and motivate staff by identifying desired projects for employees, and offering them to those who slog away on more dull tasks. The key here is keeping tabs on which tasks are considered interesting or less desirable to your staff – and once again figuring out what makes them tick. Only then can you effectively "use the squirrel" in your organization.

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I learned that from training dogs.

Jennifer Gill (@ELO_BUS) is the experiential learning manager at the University of Victoria's Peter B. Gustavson School of Business (@GustavsonUVic).

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