Thursday, October 15, 2015

Everything I Know About HR I Learned From My Corgi

Ok, I am not necessarily equating animal and human behavior. Except sort of. 

Tongue mostly in cheek here.


I have a corgi who’s one of the smartest dogs I ever met.  Earlier this year I had a serendipitous meeting with a fellow who owns a small farm, which he uses as a dog training facility. His specialty is herding: he provides sheep and ducks and fenced spaces in which to work them, and rents the space and his counsel to area dog owners.

So one day last January I drove the corgi over to the farm completely clueless as to what to expect. I figured he’d want to chase the sheep around until he got tired. My husband was worried he might try to hurt them. Talk about inaccurate expectations.

From the moment we pulled into the driveway our dog, Thomas,  was on high alert, corgi ears at full staff. The owner/handler turned him loose in a pen of sheep and it was… magical. My little dog took control, rounded the sheep up, and moved them from one end of the field to the other. If one tried to break ranks the corgi would run around to put him back with the flock.  He and the handler had some secret mostly silent language they both understood.  Thomas was born to do this.

Really: Corgis are herding dogs and the instinct in his case is clearly strong. I knew this on some level: Whenever we have people over I’ll notice that everyone is standing in the kitchen without realizing he put them there.  He sits to one side keeping an eye on us all.

So: If you need someone to herd sheep, hire a herder.  But be careful of stereotypes: some corgis think this is a fun game and the sheep don’t take them seriously.  Meantime, there are videos of rabbits and cats herding quite capably.  The fellow who owns the farm offers regular herding instinct testing  for any dog that comes to visit; it’s not that hard to see whether a critter is inclined to do this. Meantime, back in organization land, we often can’t get past interview questions like, “Tell us about your ability to herd sheep, Bob.”  We need to do better at creating meaningful work sample tasks/inbaskets  to assess an applicant’s ability. And we need to quit hiring unqualified turkeys and then asking the training department to spend 10 years trying to teach them to herd sheep.

On our first visit Thomas performed beyond our expectations. There was no training, no preparation,  no orientation/onboarding/qualifying/certification.  Since then there’s been some fine-tuning.   The handler helped him move from  something more like “chasing sheep”  to  what is clearly “managing sheep”:  

"Thomas, keep them in the corner so I can pull some of this wool off." 

And  in a metaphor for Leadership101, Thomas did have to learn the hard way that you can’t guide ducks by biting at their tailfeathers. He wants to do this well and shows visible satisfaction and delight at performing better, often going back for another round even when the rest of us are taking a break. Training works when a learner wants to do something but doesn’t know how. 

Learning is Social
Some of Thomas’s best lessons come from the farm’s resident work dog, Flicker the Amazing Border Collie. Her first job every morning is going out alone (no supervisor or handler) to the big pasture, rounding up the sheep, and bringing them the several hundred yards through gates, past the pond, and into the training pen to start the work day. On his fourth visit my corgi on his own went along with her to see how this was done.  Next weekend he’ll help her.  Learning is social.

Thomas watches Flicker closely when she works. Every now and then at home we catch him crouched down against the living room wall, stretched out, head low, eyes alert – imitating his border collie mentor.  When Thomas started visiting the farm Flicker regarded him as another incompetent novice in need of her help. But he's done good work with her, and proven himself; he became a full community member the day the ultra-achieving border collie started hanging out with him.

This experience has shown me what pure intrinsic motivation looks like. When he’s herding, the corgi is completely uninterested in pats on the head or “good boy!” or even tasty treats.  We have to drag him away when he exhausts himself, tongue nearly hitting the ground, and he pouts all the way home. His reward for herding is… to get to do it some more.  I feel that way when I’m in the zone on a good design project, or when researching a new topic that excites me. You have likely felt that way, too.  We can’t expect it every day,  but we should get to experience it often enough to make the rest of what we do less drudgery or routine. Giving people more opportunities for peak moments will help get peak performance.

Okay, then.
When we’re out at the farm other people stop to watch my dog. To see a good performer at work, clearly finding joy in a task (even a hard physical one) is a delight.  We need to do better at targeted hiring, and at creating realistic work samples in the interview phase.   We need to bring people in who are more in need of fine-tuning than complete revamping. We need to find the tasks workers want to perform for their own sake – and give them more opportunities for that.  We need to give people access to mentors and communities with good workers to emulate.  Many L&D practitioners are connected to organizational HR offices. Take a lesson from the corgi in helping to inform your work. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great post thanks Jane. Also says a lot about motivation in learning and giving the opportunity for young people to spend time in work places. High School leaving ages do many students a disservice in this respect.