By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
A few years ago, I had a strange revelation. It all began with a sneeze. In doing so, I realized that I sounded just like my dad. Not that there is anything wrong or strange about how my dad sneezes, just that it is distinctive. At first, I chalked this up to simple heredity. But why then did it take four decades for me to become cognizant of this similarity? A quick empirical look at how other family members performed this uncontrollable reflex did not support any sort of genetic connection. Indeed, everyone else did, in fact, have a unique sneeze.
Since that time, I have become aware of other mannerisms and gestures that my dad and I share. My conclusion is that this is not a byproduct of genes, but rather environment. More succinctly, as I spend more time with my father, I become more like him. If this went no further than physical idiosyncrasies, this would be a trivial observation. But there are more valuable and influential characteristics that I subconsciously learned from dad over the years. A good, strong work ethic is a prime example. Dad never told me to work hard and diligently – he merely did so and I emulated his example. Others traits include integrity, honesty, caution, sound decision-making, carefulness with what I say, and an analytical prowess.
If I unknowingly learned these things by being around my dad, what sort of things do those who spend time with me discover and then model? While I hope they absorb good and positive traits, I fear that they may also be acquiring some less admirable tendencies. Each time a child, friend, employee, or client treats me in a less than desirable manner, I ask myself, “Did they pick this up from me?” “Are they mirroring what they have seen me do?”
When parents see things in their children that they do not like, they often do some soul searching and ask, “Where did they learn this?” and “What did I do wrong?” Although, children have many spheres of input and influence, parents are a key source. The saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is accurate and correct. Words can influence and direct, but actions are the prime training tools. And when actions match words, a strong and consistent message is sent.
I have seen this same principle carry over to the work place as well, to both with employees and clients. First, consider clients. Every business has a few “difficult” clients – the kind that one wishes would just go away. But if a company has all difficult clients, some tough introspection is warranted. Quite simply, one might wonder, “are my ‘bad’ clients merely treating me the way I treat them, according to what I taught them?” I once saw this dramatically demonstrated through an acquisition, where the prior owners were – well – less than honorable in their client interactions. Dealing with their client base was quite a challenge. It took several years to get those clients to stop yelling at managers, cursing staff, and aggressively challenging every bill. But who is to blame them? They were simply responding as they had been taught, according to how the former owner acted towards them.
From the employee aspect, I have seen this occur on several levels. First, through witnessing how a shift supervisor destroyed the effectiveness of the employees on her shift. Her staff became lazy, took extra long breaks, and lost all loyalty towards the company. The worst offenders were fired and replacements hired and trained; yet, they quickly fell into the same mode. Eventually the supervisor was investigated, revealing the reality that her position of authority was too much for her to handle. She had become lazy, took long breaks, and had no respect for her employer. Her charges were merely emulating the negative characteristics of their supervisor. A new supervisor was brought in and things slowly turned around.
More dramatically, I have seen this happen throughout an entire office. It seemed that a good employee could not be found in the entire city. Each new hire turned out to be a liar, a manipulator, and a denigrator of company policy and procedure. Alas, after endlessly turning over staff, the manager was scrutinized. Ultimately, the manager’s true colors were revealed, I found that she was a compulsive liar, shamelessly manipulated her staff, and had open contempt for company policy and executive directives. This manager was let go and suddenly good employees could be found. Though it took years to negate her damaging example, the office slowly began to function as it should.
Lastly, I have had situations where a company owner laments over his terrible employees. His staff continually falsifies time cards, steals company supplies and assets, and lodges complaints and files lawsuits on a seemingly continuous basis. The owner is truly perplexed at why this is happening, but to even a casual outsider the cause is clear. For the owner underreports income on his tax return, cheats his employees out of their rightful pay, and threatens to sue every vendor or client who causes consternation.
True, not all children, friends, clients, and employees are perfect, but when a consistent trend of unacceptable behaviors is evident within the entire group, it might be time to look at one’s self and one’s actions. After all, what we do is nothing to sneeze about.