Leadership Lessons from My Guide Dog
Recently my guide dog, Fiji, has shown me in no uncertain terms that micromanagement does not work. I’ve always known I preferred being able to control what was happening around me, but had never thought of myself as a control freak… till now.
My first lesson in micromanagement happened 5 months ago when we introduced Fiji to the other dogs at home – a process that we had been thoroughly briefed on by the guide dog trainers. Remember that we needed to introduce a new member into a team that had long since sorted out their personalities (dog-alities? Canine-alities?) and their processes. Potentially it could have been a difficult time for everyone concerned.
On the drive home I gave my husband, Craig, long and detailed instructions on how we were going to proceed. Yet when it came down to it, all those instructions went straight out the window – which is where Fiji tried to go as soon as she saw the rest of her new doggy family. And very soon Fiji was playing happily as an integral part of the pack.
So much for my trying to micromanage the situation!
My second lesson on micromanagement took place a few weeks later. Though I had no issues with Fiji while we were walking our routes, she had a tendency to become highly excited when around people, which I felt I needed to manage as some people do not like dogs. I sought advice from the guide dog trainers and it helped… a bit.
Then it dawned on me that the times I was most stressed about the issue and tried hardest to keep her under tight control were the times my highly sensitive guide dog reacted to people most strongly. So I took a conscious decision to relax and only react if it was warranted… and the situation eased almost immediately. Once again it appeared that my trying to micromanage the situation was not the most effective response.
Since then I have tried to incorporate this learning into my leadership activities, and my life has become less complicated, less stressful and less busy. I’m trying to resist double checking that every task that the team needs to accomplish is being done. I’m trying to let people resolve their own minor conflicts while being available if I am needed. I’m also trying to let go control and trust in the process rather than planning every minute detail of every possible eventuality that might possibly occur.
I’m definitely not perfect and there are times I don’t get it right – either with the teams with whom I’m working, or with Fiji – but I’m finding there is less conflict and more collaboration since I’ve started trying to let go of control by micromanaging the team.
It’s been a while since I posted a lesson from my new-ish guide dog, Fiji. So here is another one.
Learning a new route with Fiji is a lot like learning a new skill. In both cases I experience a similar feeling of anxiety – perhaps I’m not doing it right, perhaps something might go wrong and I’ll land up making an irretrievable error(have you ever felt that way?). As a result of that anxiety I find myself working slowly and methodically through the brand new process/skill/route because it is unfamiliar to me.
Once that new process becomes more familiar I start to speed up and move more confidently through the task.
Recently one of the houses in our neighbourhood paved over a very uneven patch of the grass sidewalk. For several weeks we had to skirt round the obstacle by walking in the road, often with the assistance of the guys doing the work as it is a busy intersection. A few days ago we got to walk on the paving for the first time.
In the long run I’m sure we will be grateful for that wonderful flat paved walkway. However, our first few experiences have been just like learning that new skill – we’ve walked very slowly and carefully over the unfamiliar route… just in case.
And it was a good thing that we did, because on our second trip over the paving my foot slipped off the sidewalk onto the road. I was somewhat startled because Fiji is usually very good at keeping me safely on the sidewalk. It turns out that there is only a narrow strip of paving and beyond that is a hole where the home owners are presumably planning on planting a garden. Fiji was trying to navigate between the two edges and, if I’d been walking closer to her, I would have been fine.
We now know how to navigate that sidewalk safely and have experienced not more problems… and as the route has become familiar we have started walking faster and with more confidence – and the initial anxiety I felt when walking on the paving has gone.
For me the lesson is that it pays to take the time to be cautious when learning something new, be it a process, a skill, or a route – by playing it safe you can discover the pitfalls and figure out how to navigate them. Then, once you are more comfortable, you can speed up.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how my levels of self-confidence had grown over the short time I had been working with my guide dog, Fiji. And that is still true. What I’ve realized is that the confidence has transferred to other areas in my life.
Whether it is having the confidence to apply to be considered as a speaker for PechaKucha Cape Town, when I usually avoid using PowerPoint slides (for those who don’t know, PechaKucha is a presentation format of 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide); or whether it is having the courage to walk over to a neighbour’s home on my own – no guide dog, no sighted guide – I have started doing things that I would have avoided several months ago, because my confidence has grown.
So, how could this be useful to a manager or team leader in the workplace?
Let’s say you have a member of your team who lacks confidence –someone with potential, a productive member of the organisation, but who simply lacks confidence. Imagine if you could help that team member grow in confidence in one single aspect of their work, or their life. That confidence could transfer back into other areas and could have a benefit to the overall performance of the team, not just the individual team member.
Expert on building self-confidence, James Hurford, has this to say, “When you ‘do what you cannot do’, you gain self-confidence. Even if you fail, you gain self-confidence because you were brave enough to look your fear in the eye and act anyway.”
Helping your team to develop self-confidence could have a positive impact on your team and your organisation. Why not give it a try?
Find out more about James Hurford on www.facebook.com/TheConfidenceDoctor/
I’m constantly amazed at the powerful leadership lessons my guide dog, Fiji, has been teaching me since we started working together a few months ago. Most recently, she has shown me how effectively appropriate rewards can stimulate good performance.
On one of our regular routes we need to cross a busy road at a pedestrian crossing where there is a robot to stop the traffic. When a pedestrian wants to cross, they push a button on the robot pole and a few second later the lights will change.
When we first learned the route Fiji had difficulty finding the right pole. Sometimes she stopped short, sometimes she overshot a little. We always got there in the end, but seldom did we walk straight up to the pole.
Every time she found the pole and stopped with her nose touching it like she was meant to she would be rewarded with a dog treat. And after a few days Fiji could find that pole perfectly!
You may be asking what this has to do with leadership. If we, as leaders, reward good performance our teams will quickly make the link between the good performance and the reward. And that will motivate the team to repeat the required performance.
We do need to bear in mind that not everyone is motivated by the same rewards – if I had tried using slices of apple to reward Fiji rather than dog treats, the results would not have been as effective. Mind you, she is a Labrador, and they will eat almost anything, so maybe my statement doesn’t work in this context, but certainly I wouldn’t be motivated by dog treats.
The other thing to bear in mind is that the reward should be offered as soon after the required performance as possible, so the link between the two is clear. If I had only rewarded Fiji for finding the pole after we had crossed the road she would probably think the reward was for crossing the road… in fact, rewarding her at that stage might undermine my effort to get her to find the pole because she would be rushing to cross the road so she could have the treat… bypassing the pole completely.
In case you think I’m insulting your colleagues and team members by suggesting you treat them the same way I do my guide dog, remember how important Fiji is in terms of what she enables me to achieve, and how necessary a part of my team she is… and know that I’m actually paying your team a huge compliment!
It is appropriate that I am starting this series of blogs today, as it is international guide Dog Day and this post is about my (almost) brand new guide dog, Fiji.
Here is a link to a video in which SA Guide Dog Trainer, Cheryl Robertson (who trained Fiji and I last month) takes a blindfolded TV presenter on a walk with a guide dog:
At one point in the segment Cheryl stresses the importance of trust between the guide dog and the human partner, and, as a blind person working with a guide dog, I cannot tell you how important this trust relationship is. Trust is a crucial part of any relationship: between colleagues, team members, spouses, partners and friends. Think of the consequences of not being able to trust those who are part of your business and personal lives. How will that affect the relationship, the team, the organisation, your productivity? Now think of those same relationships being founded on a strong sense of trust – how does that play out in your life?
When Fiji and I started working together I struggled for a few days to develop that all important sense of trust. I would imagine that most new guide dog owners experience at least a degree of the same struggle that I did. It is one of the reasons that the guide dog trainers work so closely with the newly paired teams, to ease them over those first tentative steps when trust is not yet formed. Over the 2 weeks of training, when you are with your dog almost permanently and when you walk and work on various routes and in various situations, that trust slowly begins to form.
A little while back I posted an article about Fiji and I becoming lost on one of our walks (see A True Story of Human Kindness, on 14 April). That small incident – getting lost – impaired my trust in Fiji – not by a huge amount, but nonetheless, that trust was affected.
Since then, Fiji and I have been working really hard to rebuild the trust that we need to work as an effective team – Fiji needs to trust that I am comfortable, relaxed and in control of what is happening around us… and I need to trust that Fiji is going to follow my instructions without taking shortcuts that could put us into danger… or get us lost. Trust is a two-way street – we can only build it together.
Each successful walk we take continues to build that trust, and will do so for months to come – we are already working better than we were when we got lost, and every walk just keeps on getting better and better!
If trust is impaired in any of your relationships, remember that you can only improve that trust by showing trust, working on creating an environment where trust can germinate, and by acting in a way that shows that you are reliable and trustworthy – hoping that the other person (or people) involved will value the trust you offer and do the same.