Friday, April 7, 2017

The Leash Theory of Management

The Leash Theory of Management
by Bryan J. Neva, Sr.

Have you ever heard a manager use phrases like, "I have to keep them on a short leash!", or "I'll give them all the rope they need to hang themselves!" Essentially that manager subscribes to what I call "The Leash Theory of Management."


"The Leash Theory of Management" has it's origins with the famous Russian Psychologist, Physician, and Nobel Prize winner, Ivan Pavlov (1849 - 1936), who did experiments with dogs called "classical conditioning." First Pavlov presented meat (an unconditional stimulus) to a hungry dog, and the dog responded by salivating (a natural unconditional response). Next Pavlov rang a bell at the same time he presented the meat to the hungry dog, and again the dog responded by salivating. Pavlov repeated this several times so the dog would learn to associate the ringing bell with getting fed. Finally, Pavlov rang the bell but didn't present the meat and the dog responded by salivating. So Pavlov conditioned the dog to salivate at the sound of the ringing bell. The ringing bell was the "conditioned stimulus" and the dog's salivation was the "conditioned response." The ultimate purpose of Pavlov's experiments with dogs was to learn if they were applicable to humans; and, in fact, they were as subsequent, unethical experiments on children by other psychologist proved this. Today, most psychologist and management academics overwhelmingly condemn the use of "Pavlovian conditioning" on people as being unethical and immoral as it lowers the dignity of human beings to the level of animals and causes long-term psychological harm.

We know that people can develop phobias, anxieties, irrational fears, emotional responses, or other abnormal psychological behaviors mainly because of a "conditioned response." For example, say you flew on an airplane and had a very traumatic experience (the plane experienced extreme turbulence and almost crashed), you'd naturally associate flying with death and might develop a fear of flying, or a "conditioned response" to flying. Or worse yet, say you grew up in an abusive home, you'd most likely develop some unhealthy  "conditioned responses" to life, other people, or your own family.

Getting back to "The Leash Theory of Management" or what psychologist call "Pavlovian conditioning," the manager who subscribes to this theory basically believes that his employees must be trained like dogs and figuratively kept on a leash so he can control their behavior. He'll use rewards, punishment, fear, and intimidation all to elicit a conditioned response from his reports. The idea of "keeping his employees on a short leash" would imply micromanaging or closely scrutinizing everything the employee does. The idea of "giving them all the rope they need to hang themselves" would imply taking a hands off approach with an employee, waiting for them to make a mistake, and then mercilessly punishing them the minute they do. The manager is essentially setting his employee up to fail, and they'll typically use this technique to get rid of an unwanted employee.

Using Pavlovian Management Techniques usually causes employees to respond anxiously to the mere presence of their manager; the manager (or "dog trainer" as I like to call them) has "conditioned" his employees to "respond" with fear and anxiety the minute he shows his face or opens his mouth. They become like dogs that have been beat so much that they spend half their working lives just cowering in fear and sucking up to him. 

One of the most famous practitioners of Pavlovian Management was Jack Welch, the controversial CEO of GE from 1981 to 2001. During his tenure at the helm of GE, the company's value rose an astounding 4000%, and when he retired from GE he was given an unheard of severance package of $417 million. Welch's personal net worth is north of $720 million! Having published several books himself, and having numerous other books and articles published about him, we know that Jack Welch was a big proponent and practitioner of "The Leash Theory of Management" or Pavlovian conditioning. He used fear, intimidation, rewards, and punishment to motivate his underlings. These, along with some creative accounting, was how he was able to accomplish what he did at GE! GE is a classic example of a "profit-at-any-price," "throw the baby out with the bathwater" organization, as they ruthlessly will fire employees on a whim.  

The military as well extensively uses "The Leash Theory of Management" or Pavlovian Management Techniques especially with new recruits and low ranking enlisted personnel. The military loves the "young and dumb" as they're easily trainable just like puppies. The military euphemistically calls it "re-socialization," but in reality it's akin to "dog training!"  That is why most people don't last much longer than their first enlistment, and also why so many veterans suffer from some degree of PTSD even if they'd never even seen combat. R. Lee Ermey's portrayal of the Marine Corps Drill Sergeant in the 1987 Stanley Kubric film Full Metal Jacket is a classic example of military "Pavlovian conditioning." Those who thrive in a military environment, like the character R. Lee Ermey played, are those who love to be "dog trainers" just like the famous dog whisperer Cesar Millan, or the controversial Jack Welch of GE. 

I once met a veteran who had a barcode tattooed on the back of his neck; when I asked him about it he told me the military made him feel like just a number or a piece of serialized military equipment. The tattoo was his way of protesting his military experience. In fact when I was in the military, we stenciled our social security numbers on everything including the "dog tags" we were required to wear around our necks. Personally, I felt the same way that guy did, but I don't believe in getting tattoos. 


The militaries throughout the world are probably the most dehumanizing organizations you'll ever find; it's just that certain militaries (like North Korea's) are more dehumanizing than others. Where the U.S. falls in the spectrum is open to debate. I can only tell you that the military's social caste system where the officers are the "lords" and the enlisted personnel are the "serfs" is an outdated system best left in the middle ages. 

One of the least dehumanizing militaries in the world is Israel's. Against all odds, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) decimated the superior forces of the Egyptians, Syrians, and Jordanians during the 6 Day War in 1967. Most experts believe the Israeli victory was due in large part to the superior leadership and humane way the IDF treated their troops; the result was that their troops were willing, loyal, and committed. The Arabs, on the other hand, used "Pavlovian conditioning" on their troops (i.e. they treated their troops like a bunch of expendable dogs) and they were decimated by their much smaller adversary Israel.

I have nothing against the military and those who serve to protect their countries; all I'm saying is that the military should stop relying on "Pavlovian conditioning" and start using modern leadership methods to develop willing, loyal, and committed followers. They'd discover that morale would improve and their fighting force would be more effective just like the IDF. 

Employees who experience "Pavlovian conditioning" in their working environments usually fall into three categories: 1) those who choose to stay and accept it; 2) those who choose to fight and try to change it; and 3) those who choose to just leave. 

The employees who choose to stay usually do so because they can't afford to lose their jobs (i.e. their meal ticket), and they cower in fear like an abused dog and suck up to their "masters" hoping not to get another beating that day; however, they become disengaged from their work and usually do just enough to get by and not draw the wrath of their "dog trainer." Of course, the long-term results is lower productivity. 

The employees who choose to fight do so because they simply don't like being treated like a dog; they want to be treated with the dignity and respect of a human being. Also, they believe they can somehow be a change agent in the organization. 

Finally, the employees who don't want to be treated like dogs and accept the status quo but don't have the will or energy to fight back just choose to quietly leave. The revolving door starts turning when they leave, new employees replace them, and the vicious cycle starts all over again. (It kind of sounds like the military doesn't it?) Unfortunately, when there's high turnover under a manager who practices "The Leash Theory of Management," the last thing most organizations will ever do is fire the manager!

Having been victimized throughout my working career (beginning with my military service) by managers who practiced "The Leash Theory of Management" caused me to develop a "conditioned response" of fighting back. I simply refused to be treated like a dog and demanded to be treated with the dignity and respect of a human being. In all honestly, this "conditioned response" of mine has probably hurt my career as I've never been promoted to anything higher than a front-line supervisor or a temporary manager. So If you want to move up the corporate ladder, I wouldn't advise anyone to emulate my "conditioned response." 

What I'd advise you is this: when you start a new job and discover you're working for a "dog trainer" just quietly start looking for another job. (It's easier to find another job when you already have one.) If you stay you'll eventually develop some serious mental health issues; if you fight back it's unlikely you'll ever change anything and you'll still end up with some serious mental health issues. So do yourself a favor, save your sanity, and just leave! Find another employer or manager who doesn't practice "The Leash Theory of Management" and will treat you with the dignity and respect we all deserve as human beings.

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The Leash Theory of Management

The Leash Theory of Management by Bryan J. Neva, Sr. Have you ever heard a manager use phrases like, "I have to keep them on a shor...