Why You Might be Turning Your Wolves into Sheep

Are you teaching your people to be sheep or wolves?

Many of us are spending too much time corralling our co-workers instead of pointing them in the direction we want them to go.  Today we’ll take a lesson from nature about positive reinforcement, and give you three tips to help get your pack moving in the right direction.

[Transcript- Turning Your Wolves into Sheep]

Don’t Fence Me In!

Do you know what one of be biggest time wasters is for us as leaders?  Building fences.  Here’s what I mean. You may have heard of the 80/20 rule: it’s the unfortunate reality that we seem to spend 80% of our time dealing with 20% of our people.  Usually for the wrong reasons.

This is because it’s easiest to see and focus on the things that are wrong.  And our natural impulse is to impose barriers and penalties to keep them from happening again:

Let me show you what I mean:  Here is your team.  Without a clear objective, they don’t know where they should be going;  one might start to wander over here – and he’s not serving the customer well, so you have to make a list of rules to tell him how to act.  And here’s another guy – he’s headed in this direction, being disrespectful and distracting to the other workers, so you have to take time and effort to get him to stop.    And this guy is doing Facebook on company time.

You end up building fences all over the place. But all these kinds of actions only serve to emphasize what we don’t want our teammates to do, things we want them to avoid.  It’s kind of like trying to build a fence around them to keep them in their place.

But fences take a lot of time and effort to put in.  And once you have a fence, you have to maintain it, repair loop holes, and make sure nobody is trying to dig underneath it or climb over it.  Before you know it, all your energy is focused on the fence.  And what do you get for all this effort?  Mostly you have just corralled and controlled them, like sheep.

Is it Sheep that you Want?

I’m sure when your company went out to hire people, they weren’t looking for sheep.  They wanted the best people they could find.  People with initiative, energy, and drive.  People who look for opportunity, and who could work well together as a team.  They were looking something more like wolves.

So let’s consider the wolf for a minute – how does a wolf stay a wolf?  Wolves have to eat to survive; they spend their time and effort looking for food.  They do this by working in packs, and looking for opportunities. They don’t waste a lot of time on things that don’t contribute to success.  When they are successful, they are immediately rewarded for their efforts with something meaningful – a good meal.

Nature rewards the efforts of the wolf using what behavioral psychologists call positive reinforcement.    Chase the herd, get some dinner.

Some Fences are Essential

Don’t get me wrong; some fences are essential.  Things like ethical behavior, respect for others, and compliance with safety requirements are critically important.  These fences should be clearly identified and well-constructed.

But if you spend all your time trying to keep them corralled, boxing them in, what are you not doing?  Leading – setting vision and direction, showing the way, encouraging, reinforcing.

Turning Wolves into Sheep – The Takeaway

What’s the takeaway?  Three thoughts here for you:

  1. Reward the wolves first. Focus on creating the environment in which your wolves can be successful. Look for ways to reinforce their actions the same way that nature does:  immediately, positively, and as a team.
  1. Don’t punish your wolves when herding the sheep. That 20% can be a real pain in the neck. You have to deal with them, but don’t do it at the expense of your productive teammates. Devote your priority time and effort to helping them find dinner.  Deal with the 20% at their inconvenience.
  1. The fewer the fences, the better. If you want your pack to feel free to innovate, think independently, explore, demonstrate initiative, and succeed, don’t build any more fences than you have to.

The better you define what a good meal is to your team, the more they will focus their energies on finding it, and the less time all of you will have to spend building fences, and tending sheep.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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