11/13/2014 03:21 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Do What You Want Them to Do: Management Lessons from the Toddler Trenches

My toddler, 1 years old at the time, stumbled and fell. Spectacularly.

He hadn't been walking or talking long; he wasn't yet great at either. But I'd let him roam free in a hotel lobby to build confidence. Why not let him stretch his wings in such a giant space with no easy exits? But his wobble-walk failed him, and he fell hard on the stone floor. And as his knees, palms and torso made contact in rapid succession, a tiny toy truck sailed from his left hand, bouncing ten feet across the marble.

I flew from behind. A stranger collected his toy and approached from the front. As we both reached him, my little guy stood up, his back to me, and faced the man who held his truck.

I couldn't see his face. Would there be tears? A pained scream? A total meltdown? Between the impact, and the sight of his favorite toy in a stranger's hand, this wouldn't be good.

The stranger tentatively handed over the toy, and my amazing tot said the one thing I least expected.

"TANK YOU, Sir!"

That's right, he thanked him and called him "sir." The man grinned from ear to ear. Neighboring parents watching the fall nearly broke into applause. From behind a counter, a clerk whispered "wow."

For fifteen seconds, my kid was some sort of courteousness hero, and I basked in glory-by-proxy. We must be great parents if he's so composed under pressure, and at only a year old, right?

Yeah, right. I write about management, not parenting, because that's what I know. Families are not organizations -- and, honestly, I'm mostly guessing in the Daddy role. I won't know if my guesses are right for at least 20 years. I may never know.

So, when the glory wore off, I found myself confused. Never to that point had I directed him to "say thank you." And honestly, I'm not a big fan of "sir" and "ma'am." It all feels a little old school to me, and it's not something I'd demand, even of an older child. At this age, the kid had just started talking intelligibly. How much please, thank you, sir, and ma'am could I have required, even if I had been so inclined?

It hit me a few weeks later as I was guiding him toward my car. I was holding his hand, pulling and coaxing him in one direction as he strained in another, when out of my mouth came a phrase I'd used in countless similar situations:

"Please, sir, come in this general direction. Right this way. Thank you, sir."

I wasn't just asking politely. I was also dragging him by the arm in the direction of my car, as parents do. But, while I did it, I called him "sir." I said "please." I said "thank you." It was hardly a perfect scenario, and yet on this occasion and countless others I was role modeling language and behavior. On further reflection, I realized that his mother and I say please and thank you to each other quite often, and we also say it to him when he gives us something -- even when it's something he doesn't really want to turn over.

We didn't teach him how to respond in the fall-and-drop-your-toy situation. We didn't demand that he use certain words in certain interactions. But, between us, we equipped him with language. He did the rest.

Let's get back to what I understand: Organizations. You can't pre-define everyone's response to every possible contingency. You can try, of course. You can write long, arduous employee manuals that specify down to the word what your team is supposed to say. You can create policies and procedures that dictate what your managers and leaders are supposed to value, think and do. You can review these ad nauseam, monitor everyone and penalize deviations from the approved script.

Still, surprises happen. Bad days happen. Stumbles happen. And no matter how comprehensive your controls or how necessary you believe them to be, they'll never approach the power of equipping your team with language and behavior by simply practicing it in front of them. If you want your employees to be output-focused, be output-focused with them. If you want them to be kind but firm, be kind but firm. If you want them to make clear decisions and stand by them, make clear decisions and stand by them.

If you want them to say "thank you" a lot, say "thank you" a lot.

Some argue against this approach. With the best of intentions, they claim it's somehow disingenuous to thank people when you're telling them what to do. You're the boss, right? Just give the order and be done with it. Others get too caught up in situational specifics. "How can I role model politeness to customers," they'll ask, "when my employees never see me interacting with customers?"

With my kid, at least, neither argument holds water. If his mother and I were in the habit of grabbing things from his hand without a word, how would he have known to thank the toy-bearing stranger? Should I have staged a few spectacular, toy-flinging falls of my own in hotel lobbies to prepare him? Maybe prepared something for him in PowerPoint?

Those arguments don't hold water in organizations, either. If a manager is constantly complaining to his staff about customers, the staff will take the attitude and language to the customers themselves. When that manager changes his language, and starts talking about things like "our great customers," slowly but surely that language will find its way to customers' ears too.

Imagine this: In a stressful situation with a customer -- or with you -- a team member reaches blindfolded into a box of potential response cards. Some say "courtesy," some say "I don't get paid enough for this," and some are too obscene to mention. You don't control which card he picks, but you do influence what's in the box.

Contexts, situations and details matter significantly less than visibility and frequency. The more instances of "thank you" that you've put in the box, the better your odds of a desirable outcome when he makes the draw.

Skew the odds in your favor! Ask yourself: In what direction are you skewing the responses of your own employees, peers and managers? Are you role modeling the behaviors you'd like to see in them, or are you doing one thing and asking for another? If you need to make a change, do so -- and then keep doing so. By the time you realize the benefit of your correction, you'll probably have forgotten that you made it.

And, by that time, I'll have perfected my PowerPoint deck entitled "Graceful Recovery for 2-Year-Olds." Now that he's older, I think he can handle a full day training program.