What a Team Can Learn From Dogs

“Near this spot Are deposited the remains
Of one who possessed beauty
Without vanity, strength without insolence,
Courage without ferocity,
And all the virtues of man
Without his vices.”
Epitaph to a Dog written in 1808 by Lord Byron
The first of man’s animal companions, canines have lived with man for thousands of years. We value their company because of human-like characteristics. This process of attributing human behaviors and feelings is called anthropomorphism. What is interesting about this process with dogs is it doesn’t seem the characteristics are projected. To most dog owners they seem a true description of the animal.
While some of their behavior is breed specific… guard duty, gentleness with children, trainability, etc., other personality traits are more general among the species. It is some of these behaviors that help build a sense of team. I would assert the following characteristics are present in all successful teams.
1. Loyalty – Unlike cats, dogs almost universally form strong attachments to their family unit… their pack. Strong teams also have a vibrant sense of community. Teammates don’t want to let each other down. The most observable example of this is combat units. I was watching an interview of a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was asked why he repeatedly put himself in danger. His reply was, “I really didn’t think about that. My team needed me. They were pinned down and we had to get them out.” The loyalty so elegantly expressed points out the depth of the bond existing on some teams. In the workplace the desire not to let the team down can lead to extra effort by individuals and a willingness to pitch in to help teammates who have fallen behind.
2. Playfulness – All dogs love to play. They live in the moment and enjoy breaking out of the routine. Superior teams have fun too. Teammates take their work seriously but also enjoy levity. About ten years ago Pike Place Market in Seattle gained national attention when the book, The Fish Philosophy was written. It pointed out the value of play and fun in the workplace. The men who work at the market come in every day before sunrise and engage in strenuous physical labor preparing to open. When the customers begin arriving, the employees engage them in a playful banter. They toss the fish… sometimes 15 or 20 feet from one part of the market to another. They shout out nonsensical lines like, “Here’s a tuna for Tim from Tulsa!” Crowds gather for the “show.” By being playful they turn a physically and mentally taxing work environment in to a fun place to be.
3. Affection – Dogs don’t judge. They bond with their pack. Quality teams have found ways to care about each other. Teammates appreciate, like and sometimes care significantly about each other. In 2009, I read an article about a small manufacturing plant in Michigan that was severely impacted by the recession. The employees were informed that because of the downturn in business some of the employees would have to be laid off. The employees responded by offering to all take a cut in hours if the layoffs could be avoided. This team cared enough about their teammates to each take a financial hit in pay to protect those who would have lost their jobs. The selflessness expressed through this action demonstrates the care, concern and affection all great teams possess.
Loyalty, playfulness and affection are critical elements to highly functioning teams. Does your team posses all three? If not consider taking lessons from your friendly dog.

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