Lesson from Charlie: Make up you mind(s)


As soon as I became consistent in how I applied rules and expectations my dog Charlie became a good dog. It wasn’t a coincidence. He could finally see a pattern and could predict my reaction to his behavior.

Charlie is my first dog and it took me a while to realize that the “trial and error” method to setting expectations for Charlie wasn’t working. I didn’t know what I should expect from him when I brought him home so I stayed flexible and accommodating. I wanted him be happy; he had been living a rough life scavenging and I was ready to pamper him. My approach couldn’t have been more wrong.

Charlie’s sense of security comes from a predictable routine; no surprises, no changes. A few clear rules and boundaries and he is a happy dog. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t misbehave; he knows exactly how long he can bark at a cat before he gets the “no barking” command.

There are times when he sees me glaring at him and intentionally misbehaves. He will try to eat as much of the mail as he can before I can grab it — but then he slinks off and puts himself in a timeout under the coffee table. He can predict my reaction. He knows the rules and decides to obey or misbehave and accepts the consequences.

Now imagine what Charlie’s life would be like if he had two humans taking care of him who didn’t agree on the rules. What if that other person allows Charlie to eat the mail, feeds him table scraps and praises him for barking at every cat and squirrel that taunts him? Charlie would be confused and might feel abused when disciplined for something that the other person allows him to do. He wouldn’t know what to expect. He could take advantage of the situation, but more likely he would be frustrated.

It is very common for a small business to be run by partners. Two people with different skills and different ideas working together for the good of the business is fantastic. They will balance each other out.

But what if they don’t know how to talk through their differences and agree on rules, priorities and policies — what does that do to the employees? Worse yet, what if the partners running the business are married?

Example: Matthew and Kim own a plumbing business. Matthew oversees the actual plumbing and Kim runs the office. Matthew tolerates attendance problems, he isn’t concerned about the plumbers’ paperwork, and as long as work gets done he doesn’t want to fuss about details. Kim takes the calls from customers tired of waiting for a late plumber or unhappy with the mess left in their house after the plumber packed up and left.

Kim is fed up with the attendance problems and all the scheduling changes created by unreliable employees. And Kim is really ticked at her husband for not holding the employees accountable for poor quality work. She can’t convince him to fire anyone; his way of dealing with bad employees is to hope they eventually leave his employ soon.

This inconsistent approach and inability to agree makes their working relationship and marriage a challenge and frustrates their employees and customers.

When a business is managed by one person consistency shouldn’t be hard to achieve, should it? Well, many of us have experienced what it is like to work for someone who blows hot and cold — easy going on Monday and throwing a fit over every little thing on Wednesday.

Some years back I worked for a man who would stick his head in my office and tell me he wanted me to research and write a plan for a profit-sharing program — and he wanted it by Friday. I would change my work priorities, work late and set up a time to review it with him on Friday only to be screamed at for wasting my time and his. He would deny that he asked for that work to be done. He was constantly changing our priorities, changing the work rules. We didn’t know what to expect from day-to-day.

My co-worker Jim decided to just quietly ignore the Boss. Jim said that the Boss changed his mind so often there was no point trying to keep up; just stay out of the Boss’ sight line and pretend to cooperate.

Jim’s system worked. The Boss didn’t remember what he had demanded a few days earlier and Jim avoided the frustration the rest of us felt as we tried to follow an erratic boss. Sometimes one person can be as inconsistent and difficult as two partners who can’t agree.

How does inconsistency affect employees? Well, just like Charlie some employees will take advantage of it but most will be frustrated. And employees worried about what to expect next from the boss aren’t focused on the customer or the business. Consistently good employees and consistently good bosses — not a coincidence.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910.


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