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Animal training to solve office politics problems

Poster illustration and type design by Franke James, MFA.; Source elephant ©istockphoto.com/Judy Worley

Dear Office-Politics,

I have been having difficulty with a fellow administrator coming in behind me and directing employees as he sees fit, contradicting the tasks that I have already assigned. The employee doesn’t know which one to follow and so they follow the one who is there at the time – usually him. I end up getting frustrated at the employee not knowing that the administrator has told them to do what they are doing. This causes much tension. What complicates the matter is that the fellow administrator is my husband! In the organizational structure, I am his superior.

A concrete example: We had an issue last week with two other staff members that were working on a project that I had been directing (sometimes my husband, Sam, directs it together) and I told them to do one thing and he came along and told them to do another. They did what he said and when I got back to campus and saw that they had not done what I had asked I wondered why. That’s when they told me that they were stuck in the middle between us and that it happens all the time. This was the first time I was really aware that it happens that often. I feel terrible that the staff are working as hard as they are and feel they are not getting the credit they deserve. We have been on a deadline and so I was rather direct about my frustration only to find out that I should have been frustrated at my husband, not them.

This problem ebbs and flows – I have been the President since November 2003. Sometimes we can go long periods of time and everything is smooth – but boy when it gets bad, it can really be rough.

Neither one of us want to quit our job but we really struggle sometimes to make it work. Can you advise?

The Boss in Name Only

franke james

Dear Boss,

Working with your spouse can be wonderful (and rewarding) but there are challenges. I know because I also work with mine! You’ve presented a classic dilemma: How do you deal with a husband who overrules your directions to staff?

amy sutherland and shamu book

At the same time that your letter crossed my ‘inbox’, a new book came to my attention: What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers. Author Amy Sutherland has written an engaging and insightful book sharing her ideas on how animal training can be applied to human behavior. Specifically husbands! If I’ve piqued your curiosity, good! Because I invited Amy to consult on your letter. How would she train your husband? What secret animal training tactics would Amy advise? Would she keep him in line with a whip? Or throw him a mackerel for good behavior?

Amy’s Shamu Training Tips:

“During the year I watched animal trainers work, I never saw two trainers give one animal cues at the same time. This strikes me as that. Two trainers both giving cues to one dolphin simultaneously, then when the dolphin gets confused, taking it out on the dolphin. In that case, most dolphins would sink to the bottom of the pool. The problem lies with the trainers. So, I would first be sure to not take out your frustrations with your husband on your employees. That is punishing them for doing their jobs as a superior told them to do (even if that didn’t happen to be you). As a trainer would tell you, by punishing then you are discouraging the fundamental behavior you want employees following orders. Sounds like you may have already realized this.

“So that brings me to the elephant in the room, pun intended. I might first think like animal trainers, who don’t take behavior personally, and consider your husband’s behavior as coolly as I could.

“Most people would take his actions as an assault on your authority. Maybe it is. But maybe it isn’t. There could be other reasons at work. Could there be any practical reasons why he changes your instructions? Might he be changing them in response to a recent change or maybe to his own work needs at the moment? Does he know what you’ve told them to do? You refer to him as a “fellow administrator” but that you are technically his “superior.” As you are a married couple, and you are both administrators, might the line of command not be clear to your employees?

“By breaking down his behavior, as a trainer would, you can see its various parts and understand better how to change it. All it might take is communicating to your husband what you’ve told your employees to do and asking him for his help in making sure they do it.” ~ Amy Sutherland, Author

Did Amy’s response comparing you to animal trainers give you an ‘Aha’ moment? I certainly laughed when I read it because there is a lot of truth to it (and humor). We all know that two trainers giving advice simultaneously is a recipe for disaster. Somehow, couched in animal behavior terms it becomes more obvious to us how pointless it is (and because it’s colorful, it sticks in our mind easier).

Amy also nicely deescalates the conflict, by considering that maybe your husband did have a valid reason for asking staff to do things his way.

Territorial Games
Now let’s look at your situation from another angle. Replace the image of yourself as trainers with that of animals fighting over territory. That thought comes from my experience working with my dear, creative whiz bang husband for over 15 years!

Animals — especially humans — are territorial. While the nightly news and conflicts around the world give us multiple examples of that, let’s consider another species. The canine beast. Dogs are territorial animals descended from wolves. They protect their territory (home and property) by barking and sometimes attacking intruders. We know if we take a dog for a walk, he is sure to leave his ‘calling card’ on every fire hydrant and bush he passes by. Why must dogs do that? It’s very normal behavior, but it can also indicate territorial dominance, anxiety, and even insecurity.

How does this apply to you? Well, as I read your letter, I recognized a familiar game that my husband and I used to play when working together: The territorial game!

The nature of our design business is highly collaborative — and in fact our skills overlap. We could each do the other’s job – and that’s where the real problem came in. Much like you and your husband we were well-meaning, but sometimes we interfered in the other’s work. That was a surefire way to start an argument.

The solution was to divide up our territories. Once we recognized the need for each of us to have clearly defined territory, we got along much better. Everyone needs their space, and their own time to be the top dog. Now at the beginning of each new project, we divide up our territory. He doesn’t step in mine (without my permission). And I don’t step in his (without his permission). We respect each other’s territory as ‘off limits’. If I hear of a problem in my husband’s ‘territory’, I will often discuss it with him. But I won’t jump in. I can relax. I trust him to take care of it. So here are my two tips for you.

Tip #1. Carve up your territory.

Decide what territory you each have. You may say that’s already been determined by the Board of Directors or the ‘Big Boss up High’. You know that your contracts say you’re in charge of ‘A, B and C’, and your husband is in charge of ‘X, Y and Z’. But if employees are coming to you both for direction, maybe your territory isn’t as carved in stone as you think it is?

Certainly your husband is interfering in your territory (the equivalent of a rival dog marking his spot in your yard). So maybe you both need to go back to square one, and agree again on what duties belong in each territory. Maybe some of the things your husband is trying to take over do belong in ‘his’ territory? And maybe some of the duties he has would be better in ‘your’ territory?

How can you make sure you get it right? You can start by emphasizing your natural strengths — is one of you better at coaching staff than the other? Also ensure that the division makes sense. Would an objective viewer guess what your duties are as the President? And what his are as an administrator?

You may also want to sit down with your staff and talk to them about work-flow and processes. They may open your eyes to a new way that neither of you have considered.

Tip #2. Respect each other’s territory.

Once you have divided up the territories, you need to respect them. In your letter it’s obvious that your husband is not doing that. Hopefully by renewing your agreement on what belongs in each territory, you will both commit to respecting each other’s, for the sake of your sanity, marriage and workplace harmony.

Don’t be afraid to bark loudly and snarl if your husband enters your territory. For better or worse, the reality of an integrated home/work life is that a spouse’s bite can be much, much worse and last much longer than the loudest bark.

Here’s to a happy home and work life. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

  1. 6 Answers to “Animal training to solve office politics problems”

  2. Feedback from Boss:

    My husband has agreed to sit down and carefully go over the points together. He is actually eager! Thanks for being the catalyst we needed to deal with this issue. I will let you know how things go and what we decide to do if you are interested.

    The photo looks great! 🙂 I can’t thank you enough for your time and energy!

    Relieved and excited.

    By Letter writer on Apr 30, 2008

  3. I love the advice and I think the territory insight is brilliant. You might also find it useful to add something within it. If you find there are territories where it’s hard to separate completely, you can recognise that there are different levels of status within a group on the same territory, there are high-status animals and low-status animals. The leader, of course, is high status and the subordinates have to behave with lower status if they don’t want to provoke a threat-display from the leader. Lower status means deferring in a procedural sense, in terms of orders and instructions, and that’s one thing, but it also means more. It’s about body language and how you treat the space around you. If he puts his feet up at the desk while you’re nervously standing in the doorway with your arms folded, then he’s playing high status to the space and you’re playing low. So you might tell him that if he is on your territory, he could help by respecting your status, physically and organisationally. He should know what you mean. And like a good animal trainer, make sure you find an appropriately rewarding way to reinforce the desired behaviour once it occurs! I hope it works out well for you, Boss.

    By Joe on Oct 18, 2008

  4. my dear,is this a hierachy or status power problem or territorial [duties,area of works] problems?!TQ

    By ethau on Sep 3, 2014

  5. my Dear,the solution is to take the husband out and relocate him to other department

    By ethau on Sep 3, 2014

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