By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD
A few years ago, I had a strange realization. It began when I sneezed. My sneeze sounded just like my dad’s. Not that there’s anything wrong or strange about how he sneezes, just that it’s distinctive. At first, I chalked this up to heredity. But why did it take four decades for me to become aware of this similarity? A look at how other family members sneezed, didn’t support a genetic connection. Indeed, everyone else has a unique sneeze.
Since then, I’ve become aware of other mannerisms my dad and I share. My conclusion is this is not a byproduct of genes but 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 characteristics I learned from Dad over the years. A good, strong work ethic is a prime example. Dad never told me to work hard, he merely did so, and I emulated his example. Other 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 pick up? While I hope they absorb good and positive traits, I fear they could also acquire some less admirable tendencies as well. Each time a child, friend, employee, or client treats me in a less than ideal way, I ask myself, “Did they pick this up from me? Are they mirroring what they see me do?”
Children: When parents see things in their children they don’t 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 influence, parents are a key source. The saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is usually true. Words can influence and direct, but actions are the prime training tools. Actions that match words, send a strong and consistent message.
Customers: I’ve seen this same principle carry over to the work place as well, to both employees and clients. First, consider clients. Every business has a few difficult clients – the kind everyone wishes would just go away. But if a company has all difficult clients, some tough introspection is warranted. Quite simply, one should wonder, “Are my bad clients merely treating me the way I treat them?” I once saw this dramatically demonstrated through an acquisition, where the prior owners were 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 challenging every bill. But who is to blame them? They were simply responding as they had been taught, matching how the former owner treated them.
Staff: From the employee aspect, I’ve seen this occur on several levels. First, witnessing how a shift supervisor destroyed the effectiveness of the employees on her shift. Her staff became lazy, took 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 the company. 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 in an entire office. It seemed that a good employee couldn’t 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, her true colors were revealed: she was a compulsive liar, shamelessly manipulated her staff, and had open contempt for company expectations. 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, is a situation where a company owner lamented his terrible employees. His staff falsified time cards, stole company supplies and assets, lodged complaints, and filed lawsuits on a seemingly continuous basis. The owner was perplexed at why this was happening, but to even a casual outsider the cause was clear. The owner underreported income on his tax return, cheated employees out of their rightful pay, and threatened to sue everyone who caused him consternation.
True, not all children, friends, clients, and employees are perfect, but when a consistent trend of unacceptable behavior is evident within the entire group, it might be time to look at one’s own actions as a possible cause. After all, our actions are nothing to sneeze about.