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Ooops! What Are We Teaching Those Around Us?

Every day, little by little, we teach people things – how to treat us, what we expect, what we like and don’t like…and we don’t always realize it, yet one day we notice that “everyone” seems to be treating us a certain way. Have you ever wondered, “Why does everyone come to ME when things go wrong?” or “How come I never get assigned a high-profile task?” or “Why do I always make it to the final round of interviews, but never get the job?”

Walking my dog not too long ago, I went on one side of a tree, and Max went on the other side, tangling us up.  I said, “Oops, Max,” and started to walk around to his side of the tree…anyone who has a dog knows that if you pull on the leash, he just naturally pulls back…but this time, Max looked at the tree and trotted around it, back to my side.

I wondered why he did that and tested a theory:  For the next two days, on every walk, I purposely walked on the opposite side of things, tangling  the leash saying, “Oops, Max.” I stood still, not moving to pull him or walk around to untangle us…and that’s when I realized that somewhere along the way, I had trained Max that “Oops” means “We’re getting tangled, come over to my side of the obstacle so we can proceed forward on our journey.” To this day, I no longer have to tug at the leash, pull him around an obstacle or retrace my steps to get us untangled…I just say “Oops” and Max works with me to solve the problem.

It made me wonder what else we do without thinking that sends a consistent message to others to alter their behavior to accommodate us.  For example, I noticed a friend who is always late would profusely apologize when she did final show up, and would be visibly upset.  I know she’s always late and judging from her behavior, I could tell she knows it always annoys me.

I thought to myself “I can’t change her, but I can change me…and I don’t want anyone to stress over the anticipation of seeing me…I want people to LOOK FORWARD to seeing me.” I considered showing up even later, but (a) it isn’t in my nature and would gnaw at me and (b) that seemed like I’d be trading the “dang you’re late” stress for a “see I can be even more annoying” stress.

All of a sudden, instead of being annoyed, I felt sorry for her. Therefore, I decided right then and there to be the least of her worries going forward. I chose to look inward and see what benefit I could derive from having 15-20 minutes of extra down time — So now, I say, “Stop apologizing, I am behind on my New Yorker Magazines and you gave me the opportunity to plow through one. Would you like to take it with you and read it later?”

I witnessed a good business-related example of this concept – accepting what IS, and changing your behavior to benefit from a bad situation, while also looking at what lessons you are teaching those around you – with a potential client I was pitching.

This woman owns an engineering firm that specializes in planning complex traffic patterns such as highway cloverleafs and bridges.  She told me that during this economic downturn, she had to keep her engineers busy even though the projects were not forthcoming. She didn’t want to let any of them go, and was concerned that she might lose her strategic advantage to her competitors while they waited.  Therefore, she decided to send her engineers for further specialized training while they waited for business to pick back up.

Keeping on top of her industry trends, she noticed a lot of light rail projects being discussed around the United States and other countries. She also saw that not many firms understood the intricacies of these projects.  Therefore, she had her staff trained on how to move vehicular traffic around light rail structures, thus positioning her group to be ahead of the game when projects were bid.  In doing so, she demonstrated to her staff and the transportation industry (a) her loyalty and commitment to having a top-notch staff, (b) her strategic vision and (c) her confidence in her niche and the business she built, yet she was able to be flexible to keep up with the changing times.

I sincerely hope I land her account, because she taught me that she is a leader with whom I would be proud to work.

What lessons are you going to teach your staff and customers today?

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