The Squeaky Wheel: Changing Habits to Strengthen Relationships | The Collared Scholar
THE SQUEAKY WHEEL: CHANGING HABITS TO STRENGTHEN RELATIONSHIPS
“Check out this article.” It was the first line in an email addressing something I had posted on Facebook, and it came from my manager. The title was “A Lesson About Social Media.” As soon as the email popped into my inbox, my jaw tightened.
I was running an upscale pet hotel at the time, and the email was meant to help me improve my social media program.
“It’s much better than yours,” he continued.
My stomach dropped, and my shoulders tensed. The words stung, and instantly my anger flared, my mind launching into a tirade of defensive retorts, all of which spilled out to my family as I vented for yet another time that week.
I was frustrated. I felt attacked. And I felt like my contribution wasn’t valuable. Nevermind the fact that my hotel was the only one in the chain with a social media presence, which I had taken upon myself to implement. And nevermind that my hotel had the best revenue and growth.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened. I can specifically recall several events when I worked hard, gave it my all, went above and beyond, and was proud of my accomplishments, only to be met with words like:
“I would have done it differently.”
“I would have thought you would have done XXXX.”
“XXXX would have been more effective.”
In my head, no matter how hard I tried, I was met with criticism. Never a kind word. Only a critique.
As a result, my motivation began to dwindle. I became frustrated, and more than anything, I got jumpy. I began to fear doing anything without constantly checking in and seeking feedback along the way, and my confidence in acting autonomously steadily declined.
Pretty soon, I went from the person who got up every morning excited about work, who gave it 110% percent, and who met the day’s tasks with passion and fire, to the person who sent a hundred emails a day checking in for feedback, who was afraid to hit “publish” without getting the OK, and who faced the day with a looming dread of what was to come. The processes slowed, and innovation halted.
But the interesting phenomenon was, my manager was never unhappy with my performance. He wasn’t sitting back in his chair thinking about what a wretched employee I was, as I had so often imagined. In fact, he felt quite the opposite. He wasn’t angry with me – he had always been pleased with my work and my work ethic. He was thrilled with the results I had produced and he often used me as an example when training new managers. He didn’t hate me. He simply wanted to make sure I evolved with every repetition and that I was constantly striving to be better. He thought he was motivating me. But for me, it felt like criticism. And it affected my work tremendously as I went from being excited to go to work each day, to fearing the worst.
My experience isn’t unique. In fact, I’m certain that most of us, in our personal lives or in our careers, have been met with criticism that has affected our behavior… and not for the better. And, more importantly, I would venture to bet that in more cases than not, the criticism wasn’t intended to do as much harm as it had.
Think of a time when you were around someone who was very vocally critical of your performance. Think about how it affected you. Now think about the true intentions of the criticism. Were the words meant to crush your spirit? Were they meant to make you defensive, to make you feel bad about yourself, or to tell you that you just plain sucked? Probably not. But I can bet that’s how you took it. Maybe you replayed those words in your mind for days, stressing and worrying. Maybe in your self defensive state, you began silently critiquing your criticizer in return. Think of how it inhibited your flow of communication with that person.
Now, let’s think through how you might have responded if those critiques had been worded slightly differently.
What if my manager said, “Hey – thanks for your hard work putting together that social media program. Here are some suggested changes for the next round…”?
Think I would have been so reactive? Probably not. I would have taken it as an opportunity to grow and evolve. I would have first felt acknowledged and valued. And my anger wouldn’t have been triggered hardly as much.
Or what if, in past instances, he would have said, “Nice job on the project. I know you worked hard. For the next round, I have some ideas to make it even better…”?
Our relationship would have remained intact, we would have improved our process, I would have felt confident in my work, and overall quality would have improved.
But without the positive feedback….ever…..I was left feeling irritated, frustrated, and defensive, and I didn’t want to work without constantly checking in for feedback and validation. A process that was inefficient and unproductive.
Now let’s think about our dogs. And here’s the honest truth. More often than not, bad behavior gets more attention than good behavior does. And here’s why. You can’t just sit on your couch ignoring your dog when they are running willy nilly with your favorite shoe in their mouth. You can’t just sit around, paying them no mind if they are peeing on your rug or barking in your face. And despite what anyone tells you, it can be tricky to completely ignore a 100lb dog that’s jumping on you relentlessly.
So you get up, and correct the behavior. You retrieve your shoe or scold your dog for peeing on your rug.
But how easy is it to ignore a dog that is napping quietly on the floor at your feet? Pretty darn easy. And how easy is it to ignore your dog when they are chewing quietly on a bone on their dog bed or sitting at your side quietly as you are chatting with the neighbor. It’s a breeze! And unfortunately, it’s what we do.
As a result, a majority of our interactions are centered around dealing with the bad stuff. And the times when things are quiet, when our dogs are behaving and doing exactly what we want, we pay them no mind.
We don’t hate our dogs. We don’t think they are awful. We don’t want to make their lives miserable by constantly scolding them. But we tend to focus more energy on the behaviors we want to change – those we don’t like, and we tend to neglect our dogs when they are behaving in a way we like and approve of.
I’m reminded of a meme that has been floating around on the net. It pictures a dog with the caption, “Hello, my name is No, No, Bad Dog!”. I’m sure you’ve seen it, or one of the many variations, all of which have heavily flooded my newsfeeds at one point or another.
The image is funny, and it’s picked up steam, because it perfectly sums up the relationship many have with their dogs.
But think back for a moment to my experience with my manager when I was criticized without positive reinforcement for anything. Sure my manager and I would chat from time to time as friends often do. But it was rare I got a sincere “Nice work!” or an “Excellent job!”. And before you go jumping to conclusions, NO, that’s not because I was terrible at my job. It was simply not “like him” to praise. It was his habit to evolve processes, and as he did, he naturally focused on the areas that needed fixing, those that needed to evolve, while neglecting those that were working beautifully.
As a result, I was left feeling defensive, and my anger and insecurity were triggered. It was never meant to happen that way, but it did, and as a result, we had some negative feelings to address and deal with.
Now apply that logic to your dog, and you can quickly see how they can start to feel insecure when the only behaviors we address are those we are correcting. I can tell you without a doubt, if your dog thinks his name is “No! Stop-It! Get Down!”, it will have an impact on your relationship. And not a positive one.
For me, in regards to the work I was producing, a slight communication change would have had profound effects. A little positive reinforcement would have changed the entire encounter and I would have been left feeling much more confident and empowered to evolve the process.
And our dogs are no different.
Let’s use a jumping dog as an example. Instead of our natural reaction to correct our dogs for jumping (a behavior we’ve likely unknowingly reinforced, making the communication even more confusing), instead, think about what would happen if we focused a little attention on good behavior – sitting for this example. If we spent more time reinforcing the behavior we wanted as opposed to focusing all of our attention correcting the behavior we wanted to get rid of, we’d achieve far more comprehension than simply correcting the jump. And our relationship wouldn’t suffer.
But let’s not stop there…
What about the dog that pees in the house? Instead of simply correcting the unwanted behavior, what if we spent time rewarding going outside?
Or the sport dog that breaks the line, leaving his owner’s side to bite the bad guy before he was released? What if we spent time rewarding the dog for staying put instead of simply correcting the falter?
Or the employee at work that showed up late? When was the last time you told them they were appreciated for being on time?
I bet the answer is never. And that’s a mindset that needs to change.
Here’s the thing. A kind word is a pretty low cost reward. But it goes a long way, both with our dogs and with those people we come in contact with on a daily basis. It can be easy to neglect positive reinforcement and focus our attention on the things we want to change. In fact, it is our natural tendency to operate this way. The saying, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” didn’t come about for no reason.
But only focusing on the negative can have a serious impact on our relationships, promoting confusion, insecurity, and decreasing motivation.
Instead of focusing on the squeaky wheel, putting all of our attention on that which is broken, instead, let’s focus our energy and really try hard to spend time celebrating the good. It will be an adjustment, and it will take some getting used to, but it is better for your dog, for your relationships, and for yourself.
Make sure your dog doesn’t think his name is “No! Stop that! Get over here!”. If he does have an identity crisis, I’d much rather he think his name is “Good Boy!”, “You’re Awesome.”, or “Nice Work!”. I bet he’d agree.
And make sure your friends or colleagues don’t only see you as a source for criticism. Take care of your relationships, and spend time celebrating the positives. Don’t just grease the squeaky wheels. By taking care of all of the wheels, those that need grease and those that are working perfectly, we can prevent many problems that may arise down the road.