(A Case of Management by Motivation)
By Charles and Carla Coonradt
Have you ever wondered how whale and dolphin trainers get the 19,000-pound whale, to jump 22 feet out of the water and perform tricks?
They get that whale to go over a rope higher than most of us can imagine. This is a great challenge - as great as the ones you will face within the next five years as you manage small teams of people who report to you. However their approach is almost opposite of what is taught by most leading business schools and corporate houses.
So how do the trainers at Sea World do it? Their number one priority is to reinforce the behavior that they want repeated - in this case, to get the whale or dolphin to go over the rope. They influence the environment every way they can so that it supports the principle of making sure that the whale just can't fail.
They start with the rope kept well below the surface of the water, in a position where the whale can't help but do what's expected of it. Every time the whale goes over the rope (which is below the water), it gets positive reinforcement. It gets fed fish, patted, played with, and most important, it gets that encouraging reinforcement.
But what happens when the whale goes under the rope?
Nothing – no failure notices, no constructive criticism, no developmental feedback, nor warnings in the personnel file. Whales are taught that their negative behavior will simply not be acknowledged. Positive reinforcement is the cornerstone of that simple principle that produces such spectacular results. And as the whale begins to go over the rope more often than under, the trainers begin to raise the rope slowly. Each time the whale goes over the rope it receives positive pats and fish. However each time it fails, it is ignored but not punished.
Slowly the rope is raised over the water level until finally it is raised 20 feet above water. However it must be raised slowly enough so that the whale doesn't fail. The process ensures success, but at a pace that makes it possible for the whale to do so out of a positive strength that makes it strong and more confident of its attempts physically and emotionally.
What do B Schools and the corporate world teach you?
As naive managers the first thing we would do would be to get that rope right up there at 22 feet .We call that goal-setting, or strategic planning or even benchmark planning. Most B Schools would tell you stretch your potential and set high goals from day 1.
With the goal clearly defined, we now have to figure out a way to motivate the whale. So we take a bucket of fish and put it right above that 22-foot rope - don't pay the whale unless it performs. Next we have to give directions. We lean over from our nice high and dry perch and say, "Jump Whale!" but obviously the whale stays right where it is scared to even try.
The simple lesson to be learned from the whale trainers is to over-celebrate. Make a big deal out of the good and little stuff that we want consistently.
Secondly, under-criticize. Most people know when they screw up. What they need is help. If we under-criticize, punish and discipline less than is expected, people will not forget the event, learn self responsibility and usually not repeat mistakes.
In my opinion, most successful businesses today are doing things right more than 75 percent of the time. Yet what do they spend the majority of their time focussing on? Only on the 25 % of the times when things go wrong and the people who were responsible for this failure.
We need to set up the circumstances so that people can't fail.
Over-celebrate, under-criticize . . . and know how far to raise the rope and at what speed.
We are not whales; all people do not react the same way; carrot-and-stick is a reality of business life; one should not artificially praise average quality work as though it is excellent; just ignoring cannot work in all cases -- let us keep aside many such potential objections, valid or otherwise. Is there something worthwhile to think about and change in our approach to our teams?
Forget over-celebrating, we should at least try to consciously find situations periodically to acknowledge and appreciate a person's or team's achievement. "Finally the software was released but let us wait to see how the User Acceptance Test (UAT) goes before sending congratulatory mail." "A better time to take the team for dinner would be after the system goes live successfully." "This is not such a big deal, we have faced bigger challenges and worked on much more complex assignments and delivered."
Questions to help refute the above kind of thinking are:
-Is there something worth acknowledging in terms of effort and an intermediate culmination of that effort? Could it be sent to the individuals concerned even if it is not marked to other senior managers?
-Will all the concerned persons be around if we wait for a bigger milestone in future? Should a small timely praise be necessarily substituted by so-called bigger reward after a delay?
-Is there a risk that the future milestone is delayed so much and circumstances are such that the mood is far from celebratory?
-Are we always measuring someone's achievement against an absolute benchmark or reinforcing a relatively commendable effort under the specific circumstances?
-Are we modifying our expectations and responses based on whether someone is new to a role, whether the constraints were avoidable or outside one's control?
Finally, do note that the rope was being raised every time. I do not know about whales but if we keep hitting easy targets and getting rewards it leads us to complacency, mediocrity and even dissatisfaction.