Management lessons learned from walking the dog


I have always been struck by how much more sociable European dogs seem to be than American dogs. I think it has to do with the unintended signals sent by their owners. For example, the reason that dogs are hostile to the mail deliverer (assuming the mailbox is near the house) is reportedly because the dogs see this person come to the house virtually every day, but without ever being invited inside. This tells the dog that this is an unwelcome visitor, so it begins to behave in a protective manner when yet another unwelcome visit is made. In America, dogs are often kept on leashes or inside fences that give them a very clear sense of where the family’s territory is.

In contrast, European dogs live in apartments or small houses, with walled gardens, so they virtually never see another dog on their own territory. They only meet in the neutral space of the street, where their owners talk to each other signalling that it is OK to be friendly, or at least polite.

Similarly, I have seen workplaces transformed when one or two department heads changed. In one case, a cold war had been going on for decades, creating an atmosphere or distrust and fear and building high silo walls between departments. By modelling cooperative behavior, the new department heads helped their teams to gradually unlearn unhealthy habits and start working together. If managers demonstrate territorial behavior, that’s what their teams will emulate. If they are open and helpful to others, that will also influence the people who work for them.

Another lesson I’ve learned from the neighborhood dogs is the importance of signalling intent. Dogs sense fear and either seize the opportunity to assert their dominance or interpret it as hostility. Most dogs in the street will react positively to approaches them in an open and friendly manner (but not too aggressively friendly). I have also seen owners — who had been well trained by dog whisperers — stare their dogs into submission without ever touching them (it’s quite impressive to witness). 

I think this lesson holds in the workplace as well: most people will react positively to a colleague’s open and constructive manner. But just as abused dogs need to learn to trust again, co-workers who have bad experience might need time to witness the sincerity of your attitude, so you shouldn’t give up if a first attempt at détente is rebuffed.



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