July 25, 2019

Dogs and Safety: What’s True for Them is True for You

Our rescue dog, LivvyLou, can get spooked by stairs. Not often, mind you, but every now and then.

On one recent day, when I had a desk-load of deadlines in my home office, I also had a dog at the top of the stairs, barking incessantly. 

Like for two hours straight. The noise was deafening. I got nothing done and was paralyzed as to what to do to help her.

I Googled: How to get my dog down the stairs. First thing I read – don’t force them! (Reminds me of this fantastic NPR article on how Inuit parents raise their kids without punishment). 

Okay, good. Now what?

I tried to pick her up (all 55 pounds) but she was skittish and pulled away. I laid green towels on the carpeted stairs, thinking maybe contrasting colors would help her see a path forward.

I called the vet and they said: Tempt her with high-reward treats. She’s a food-motivated dog, so perfect! I laid strategic treats at every step on the stairs and in her bowl at the bottom of the stairs.

Didn’t work.

Three hours later–seriously, I don’t know who was more traumatized, her or me—and I was about to go on a client call. I finally did what I’m not supposed to do: I put on her leash and dragged her down the first two steps. She then raced down the rest of the stairs to the treats in her dog bowl, and I was overjoyed.

While gleefully texting my husband the news, she turned around and ran back up the stairs, now stuck and barking at the top—again.

There’s something so familiar about this pattern, and I recognize it in me and in my work with clients. 

Yes? Have you been there yourself? Do you see it in your staff?  

So how do we break these mindless patterns?

For LivvyLou, my husband figured out the solution: We attached her leash to her collar (safety) and had her focus on him (connection and trust) while they did circles around the guest bedroom and she gained the focus needed to go down the stairs without any effort or fear.

And there it is again, safety and trust.

This is not fluff, folks. This stuff is absolutely vital to problem solving.

In Google’s Project Aristotle study of 180,000 teams, safety and trust – called psychological safety – came out as the most important factor for high-performing teams. That’s right, a tech company defining safety and trust as paramount. (Harvard Business Review, 2015)

I know, it’s a stretch to correlate high-performing teams with a dog. But stay with me just a bit more.

“There’s no team without trust,” states Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google in an article by Laura Delizonna.(Harvard Business Review 2017)

The author continues that psychological safety is vital to uncertain, interdependent environments BECAUSE when under stress—and just when we need our brains the most—our amygdala signals alarm and we, literally, lose our minds and perspective.

However, the exciting news is that we’re finally coming to understand that success relies upon positive emotion to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships

Delizonna continues:

“[P]ositive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources. We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking, which are the cognitive processes underlying creativity.”

People become resilient, motivated, innovative and persistent through trust. We don’t get anywhere alone. We’re wired to connect!

So, who’s your LivvyLou?

Who’s driving you INSANE with their whining while stuck at the top of the stairs and not making progress?

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, your best step forward may be to create greater safety and connection.  

When you establish trust, your LivvyLou is likely to take the risk to rejoin the teammotivated and inspired to provide you a bowl of treats brimming with ideas, perspective and solutions. (And no more barking!)

To safety, trust, resilience and a heaping helping of humor,

Organizational Development, Psychological Safety, Team Building
Deene Morris
About Deene Morris
Leadership is a relationship - first and foremost with yourself, and then with others. Better team management begins with better self-management because teams and systems don’t change - people do. You do. As a former entrepreneur who then spent decades in the non-profit sector, I've walked the same path as my clients. My joy and passion is to help individuals and teams at every level work better together. My clients regularly report breakthroughs in innovation, collaboration and problem solving - moving from resistance to resiliency and conflict to creative solutions.

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