Creating Clarity with Constraints: Lessons from Dog Training
We think we crave flexibility, but well-defined rules create the clarity and freedom we’re chasing.
Punishment demotivates when it comes from people rather than a system of well-defined rules.
Getting mad at a dog for not listening is like getting mad at a computer when we make a typo. We didn’t get the outcome we hoped for, but the fault is our own.
Dogs do what they think will get them rewarded and avoid punishment in the environment we create for them. Our actions create the operating systems that define which behaviors are rewarded and which are punished.
It doesn’t matter what we “tell” them. They can’t understand the words we say, but they do understand the system we create.
Training a dog requires radical responsibility. Regardless of the circumstances or the actions of others, the behavior of the dog is entirely the responsibility of the owner.
Effective training requires well-defined rules that are clearly communicated and consistently reinforced.
These principles hold true in dog training but also generalize to relationships, friendships, and the workplace.
Systems are clear, people are confusing
The same way dogs can’t speak English, other people can’t read our minds. We need to communicate effectively so others understand our expectations.
If we’re responsible for onboarding someone into a new role at work, communicating expectations and rules couldn’t be more important. The first few times an employee engages with the system we create will define their behavior for years to come.
Despite the importance of the first weeks, onboarding is typically confusing and hypocritical.
All too often new employees aren’t given clear systems or rules to follow, because no one has taken the time to codify and refine them in the first place. Instead, employees are given their first assignment and told to do what they think is best.
Once they submit the work, managers review it and tell them everything they’ve done wrong and how they would have done it differently leaving new employees wondering, why didn’t they tell me to do it that way from the start?
As this pattern repeats, employees don’t learn to do their job effectively, they learn to comply with the system their manager has created.
They learn to stop thinking for themselves and ask their manager how each individual task should be done. There are no objective rules to guide their behavior only the opinion of their manager.
The lack of well-defined rules creates risk-averse, over-reliant, and handcuffed employees.
The alternative, strict and clear rules, frees employees to create excellent work without the worry of seemingly random corrections and criticisms.
Clear rules let employees work independently with the confidence that their contributions align with what is valuable to the organization.
Better rules create better outcomes.
Discipline Equals Freedom
The more constraints we have the easier it is to create. Counterintuitively, restraints liberate us.
Without rules, everything is a guessing game. Everything is a gamble when we don’t know what the result of our actions will be.
With rules in place, we know exactly what our objective is and how to accomplish it.
That is true freedom.
To operate effectively we need an objective, negative reinforcement for things that move us farther from it, and positive reinforcement for things that move us closer to it.
These are systems we should create for our pets, employees, significant others, and ourselves.
This doesn’t mean spritzing our significant other with water when they leave dirty dishes in the sink, but rather communicating clear expectations and consistently reinforcing them. (i.e. asking them to clean the dishes when they’re dirty and thanking them when they wash them in a timely fashion).
It’s common to feel rules, expectations, and systems are restrictive and overbearing, but without them, we’re leaving ourselves and others floating at sea with no compass to guide them back home.
Defining and sharing expectations provides a map that allows us to confidently and freely navigate to our destination without worrying about getting lost at every turn.
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Have you ever become frustrated with someone for ignoring rules or expectations you never clearly communicated to them? How could you have shared them proactively instead?
Are there any areas of your life where you feel you’re lacking a blueprint or system to follow? How can you ask for clearer expectations and rules to follow?
What systems do you need to define for yourself to create more direction in your actions?
Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next Sunday.