Knowing When to Bark: How Thinking Like a Dog Can Help You Advance at Work


Need a little career advice? Maybe you should ask your dog.

That’s the premise of the new book from business strategist and corporate CEO Scott MacDonald, Think Like a Dog: How Dogs Teach Us to He Happy in Life and Successful at Work. “Cowritten” by MacDonald’s rescue dog Sadie, Think Like a Dog explores the myriad ways in which we could all stand to be a little more like man’s best friend.

In the following excerpt, Sadie and MacDonald ruminate on the importance of barking — or, as we humans might call it, knowing when to speak up.


Barking can serve as a warning, like when I see a stranger approaching my house. And barking provides protection, because no one likes to confront a barking dog. Dogs bark more when leashed than when walking off leash; we are usually protecting our companion or warning others not to harm them.

Generally, barking is a good thing, but too much barking or dogs barking at the wrong things can really irritate people, and it is not worth it. Rosie barks at almost everyone when she is on a leash. Maybe she is afraid or anxious about being constrained by the leash, because she doesn’t bark much when she is not on the leash.

Barking is an important form of communicating. I cannot imagine a day without barking. But knowing when to bark is key to doing my job and being rewarded.

People exhibit similar tendencies to those described above by Sadie. Although people don’t bark because someone else barks, we do often mimic others. Investors often buy a stock just because other investors are buying it; it’s called “momentum investing.” Automobile drivers often slow down when others slow down, even if there is no accident or construction. Doing something because someone else is doing it may not make sense, but it is fairly common behavior.

In personal relationships, “barking” can have a significant effect on how good or bad a relationship becomes. Frequent complaints and criticisms cause resentment and unhappiness. The abused (or barked at) partner often withdraws or, alternatively, fights back and escalates the confrontation.

Failure to discuss problems (i.e., not barking) can also lead to resentment and future confrontation. When problems are not communicated and discussed, they do not go away but rather build up. Problems that are not addressed become bigger, more impactful, and more difficult to resolve.

In human terms, barking that is not alerting or communicating information can be viewed as complaining. Psychologist Dr. Lisa Juliano warns about those who complain too much. Characteristics of chronic complainers include the following:

– Nothing is good enough for them.
– They expect the worst — or, if not the worst, disappointment.
– They find themselves perplexed by those who seem cheery most of the time.

If someone exhibits these traits, he or she is probably complaining too much and irritating others.

Dr. Juliano divides complaints into three general categories, which I have paraphrased:

  1. The person complains about poor service or product deficiencies and is often effective in registering and bringing attention to the perceived problem. This can lead to a good outcome.
  2. The person is venting or getting something off her chest, which might make her feel better but does not lead to productive engagement. Constant venting without action is the same as whining.
  3. The person makes ineffective complaints, usually about something he has no control over, which can be an excuse for failure or a way to blame others for problems he encounters.

According to Dr. Juliano, some barking or complaining is good and helpful in achieving desirable results. For example, my partner, Patti, was a school principal for several years. When a teacher misbehaved or performed poorly, Patti usually knew about it, but sometimes it came to her attention because another teacher or a parent complained. Without a complaint, addressing the behavior would have been unnecessarily delayed to the detriment of the schoolchildren. Complaints, as long as they are fair, can provide an important and timely alert — like barking can.

Think Like a DogIn other situations, barking or complaining can be counterproductive and ineffective. Complaints have an important role in people’s lives, but excessive complaining, venting, or unfairly blaming others for one’s problems can be irritating and unproductive.

At work, a barking employee sometimes intends to promote his or her advancement or compensation. However, beware of self-promoters. The opposite of advancing oneself through demonstrated work effort is acting as a self-promoter. These employees try to take credit for what others have helped accomplish; they talk about their success instead of the organization’s success; they are individuals when teammates are needed. Successful operations are not built around people who are self-focused and always barking to draw attention to themselves.

In business, most companies — like Investa, where I was CEO — have formal annual staff reviews. This is a key time for an employee to speak up, review accomplishments, and ask for recognition and compensation. Companies and organizations typically invite employee responses during this time, and everyone needs to take full advantage. If companies or organizations do not have a formal employee review period, they are not managing their people well. A regular formal review is an essential part of people management. A confidential employee attitude survey is also a key management tool.

Between formal review periods, it was not uncommon for an employee to ask me, “How am I doing?” or ask advice on how to move ahead. Executives and managers (including me) typically like to give advice when asked. Asking for guidance and advice shows someone is concerned with self-improvement and advancing his or her career by helping the organization meet its goals. These people merit watching and mentoring.

If an employee sees something that is inappropriate or unethical, it is his or her responsibility to raise the issue with executives. No one should work or live in an unethical environment. No dog should remain silent when barking is the right thing to do, and no job is worth losing one’s self-respect by countenancing wrong behavior. The consequences of doing nothing are generally worse than the consequences of speaking up.

For years, sexual harassment was tolerated in many companies and organizations. Victims often did not register complaints because they feared losing their jobs or status, and when complaints were filed, they were often ignored. In more recent times, victims are “barking” complaints about bad and unacceptable behavior, and the chorus of barking has led to resignations of senior executives and widespread changes in practice and policy. Collective barking can be very effective by making too much noise for anyone to ignore.

The importance of moral and ethical behavior in business has become embedded in better business schools. The prestigious Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, for example, has 10 professors in its business ethics group, including Tim Fort, who holds the Everleigh Chair in Business Ethics. I met Fort — who owns and loves dogs — and we discussed the business ethics of honesty and trust as well as dogs, which behave consistently with love, affection, and trust. Fort has published several books, including Ethics and Governance: Business as Mediating Institution. The Kelley School’s focus on ethics in business is admirable and commendable.

In business and in life generally, don’t be distracted; focus on what is really happening and what you can do about it. Don’t hesitate to bark when the situation calls for it.

This has been adapted from Think Like a Dog: How Dogs Teach Us to Be Happy in Life and Successful at Work, 2019 by Scott MacDonald and Sadie, Rescue Dog. Published by Prestyge Books/Indiana University Press.

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