HR Management & Compliance

Should We Train Managers As We Do Shamu the Whale?

BLR founder Bob Brady’s look at manager training may be tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a really important principle behind it.

There was a wonderful article by author Amy Sutherland in The New York Times recently. She wrote about how animal training technique helped her train her husband. The article could help us train managers and supervisors, too.

In essence, she discovered that there are four essentials in training animals.

First, find an animal who is trainable (not all are—nor are all spouses). Second, give absolutely no negative feedback. (When they do something bad, just ignore it.) Third, when there is the slightest positive improvement, praise it highly. (When Amy’s husband picked up a sock or drove 1 mile per hour slower, she praised him.) Fourth, if the negative conduct won’t go away, create a diversion. (For example: To get her husband to stop “hovering” while she was cooking, she put chips and salsa on the kitchen table.)

The article spawned scores of letters and counter articles. Clearly, Sutherland was oversimplifying. But despite this, few HR managers would disagree with her main tenet: Praise is a much more powerful long-term motivator than criticisim. So trite; so true.

Start With What You Like

At BLR, many years ago, a training consultant introduced us to a similar formula that we’ve used ever since. When responding to any idea or suggestion, first state what you like; second, what you would change. Above all else, avoid beginning with what you don’t like.

Let me give a few examples. Say you get a proposal that someone has worked on for weeks, and the hard work shows but, if implemented, the idea would be a disaster. Or, better yet, it’s pretty good, but you can see ways to improve it. What’s your first impulse? If you’re like me, you can’t wait to tear into it, either to point out the flaws or point to improvements.

Wrong! The first response should be to recognize the effort and praise the work. Then, discuss what you would change. Note that there is a qualitative difference between saying how you would change something and saying what you don’t like about it. Change is proactive. You are building and improving; not just tearing down.

Years ago, when we installed new software that controls all aspects of our business, there were lots of problems. Every morning I’d write a fax (this is pre-email) listing what went wrong the day before. It would be an angry, blasting communication by the time I was finished.

Then, when done, I would go back to the beginning and insert a new paragraph—praising the programmers for the work they’d done yesterday on the previous day’s problems. Invariably, they’d call, thanking me for recognizing the work and saying they would get right on today’s issues. If I’d started with the problems, things would likely have gone differently. Lesson: It’s the same as the animal training: Praise—and divert.

Try our system of “like” and “change.” You’ll change attitudes … and like the results.

(Note: For the record, my wife of 30 years deems me “not trainable.” But I do enjoy the salsa and chips.)

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