I was nine or 10 years old when my dad brought Chia — a black, long-haired Chihuahua— home to our farm in Idaho. She probably weighed around three pounds soaking wet, but that didn’t prevent her from being a badass farm dog. Chia herded cows, tangled with skunks, guarded the homestead, and kept me company while I did my chores. She wasn’t too fond of my sisters dressing her in doll clothes, and was once knocked out cold when my dad accidentally dropped a shovel on her, but otherwise her petite size was rarely a disadvantage.
Chia was also a little odd. Whenever you walked toward her, she’d scamper off sideways. It didn’t matter how big or small you were — if you approached Chia on foot, she would flee. Her tiny legs would blur into motion while her dark, sparkling eyes kept track of your every move. If you wanted to pet her, you had to crouch. Only then would she come to you, quick but cautious, in a head-on, normal manner.
One day, while we were out irrigating, I asked my dad about it. Were Chia’s maneuvers a Chihuahua thing, or was she merely a little weirdo? My dad informed me that both speculations were wrong. Sweet, smart, tireless Chia had been abused. Whoever had owned her before us must have kicked her regularly enough that she’d learned to avoid people who were standing upright.
As a longtime entrepreneur with an interest in psychology and social dynamics, I tend to see business as an analogue to pretty much everything. Therapists describe the abuse inflicted on Chia by her first owners as “displaced aggression.” Non-professionals usually prefer — literally enough, in Chia’s case — “kicking the dog.” Both refer to our all-too-human tendency to lash out at innocent targets when we’re angry or frustrated but can’t get at the source of what upsets us.
An aggressive, competitive activity like free commerce breeds a lot of dog kickers; a lot of dog kickers breeds a lot of dogs kicked. Chia lived a long, full, happy life, but she never lost her habit of dodging people who got too close. I’ve noticed similar behavior in the workplace over the years.
Let’s say, for example, that a member of my marketing team (we’ll call him Chris) shares an idea that he’s clearly excited about. And instead of responding instantly, I draw a blank and stay quiet for half a second. This half-second gives Chris enough time to not only retract the idea, but to apologize for even suggesting it.
Chris’s timidity is probably evidence of him having been kicked by a previous employer. He may even have worked at place where dog kicking was rewarded. Once you’ve received that kind of treatment, and escaped that kind of environment, it’s pretty difficult not to drag the resulting baggage to your next gig.
Almost all of us, figuratively speaking, have been in a job where we’ve been kicked. Almost all of us have experienced belittlement, underappreciation, excessive criticism, gossip, etc., from leaders or peers. And many of us have a tendency to the kind of oversensitivity displayed by Chris as a result.
When I find a victim of dog kicking at Nav, I’m quick to assure them that that will never be the case here. We don’t hire dog kickers and we don’t put up with dog kicking. But if you’ve been kicked frequently enough, all the assurances in the world won’t stop you from assuming the worst of others in your new place of employment. This can end up seriously hindering your personal and professional progress.
It’s true that — like Chia’s sideways scamper — our pessimistic assumptions can be more reflexive than conscious. Unlike Chia, however, we have the gift of self-awareness, and therefore the ability to change. If we’ve been kicked in the past, we’ve got to make sure we’re not misjudging the intentions of those in the present, because then we’re punishing our colleagues by being prejudiced against them for something someone else did.
I wish I could have explained to Chia that there was never, ever a scenario in which I would kick her, and that I would protect her from anyone who came around looking to do that again. I consider it a huge blessing that I can sit down with my employees to deliver the same message. They, in turn, have an identical advantage from their side of the lens; they can come to me with their concerns instead of allowing negative feelings to fester.
But how do we get to the point where we’re proactive about maintaining our peace of mind through communication instead of assumption? Viktor E. Frankl, Auschwitz survivor and author of one of the greatest books on healing and forgiveness ever written, provides a clue: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Depending on the severity and duration of our mistreatment, we may always be negatively impacted to some extent. But we’ll always have that space that Frankl talked about, too. That space is where our misery or delight is decided. In that space, we can choose to be generous in the way that we view people. In that space lies open communication on a real-time basis among peers and leadership, and a chance to stop assuming the worst in others, and assume the best instead.
We’ve all been the kicked dog — let’s use it to be better human beings. And next time one of our colleagues is irritable or withdrawn or even an outright jerk, let’s use the space between stimulus and response to let it go instead of personalizing it.
Our house in Idaho had a big picture window overlooking the back lawn and the fields and pastures beyond. My mom recalls standing there laughing one morning as she watched a rather unusual procession file past. It consisted of a rooster, a cat, three rabbits, Chia, Peekey (Chia’s Pekingese companion), and the neighbor’s goose. They were headed for an old turkey pan filled with odds and ends of feed, which they would gather around to enjoy a snack together. To me, this homey image illustrates a successful company culture: diverse yet united, tolerant yet practical, actively moving forward, and always hungry. Capitalizing on our ability to reason and change will help us both overcome our fears and promote a harmonious, rewarding future.
This article was originally written on June 14, 2016 and updated on January 27, 2021.