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Shamu and You

Humans and apes are separated by just 2 chromosomes; humans and killer whales, by a few more than that. What might surprise you, though, is how very much alike we all really are. Most mammals thrive on praise and positive recognition. However, high performance organizations like the military often neglect this praise because everyone is doing a good job most of the time.

USAToday recently featured a full-page article in its Business section, titled “Training Workers the SeaWorld Way.” The first principle in this training method was to keep it positive. They have found that using effective communication, encouragement, rewards, creativity, effort, and variety in working with the whales helps foster a positive environment that orcas want to flourish in. A corollary to this is to remain neutral, rather than become negative. All too often, we are quick to criticize and quick to punish. We spend our time pointing out what our employees (or family) are doing wrong, rather than what they are doing right and praising them for it.

I have long said that when we fire someone, it is because of a leadership failure. Sure, there are some people who simply aren’t a good fit for your organization, and need to be let go. But more often than not, we don’t do what we can to help our workers succeed. We tell them what they are doing wrong, and then point out the consequences of continued poor performance.

Our negative approach induces fear in the employees, which causes them to produce less, simply to avoid punishment. As a SeaWorld trainer explained, “If the animal isn’t getting it…it’s our fault.” They don’t lecture the whale on the consequences of bad behavior and then expect them to change. Instead, they trainers alter their approach to better impact the particular animal they are working with. Even when a trainer was recently attacked, he remained in the pool to calm the whale. He took responsibility for the situation.

One of the best predictors of leader success is the range of responses they can call on in a given situation. How many people-tools are in your leadership-and-coaching toolbox? More tools means a greater range of responses, which means more successful leaders. The most successful leaders look inside themselves and ask what they can do differently in a situation, rather than do more of what isn’t working.

A few years ago, I apologized to one of my managers because I hadn’t checked in on her very often in the previous month. She half-jokingly replied, “Yes, Wally, why do you wrong me like that?” I was stunned. She was one of my best managers; I certainly wasn’t trying to insult her. I simply knew she needed less guidance than my other managers who weren’t performing at the level she was. Well, she challenged me on that line of thinking. She said that, even though her store was making money, I still needed to pay attention to her. And she was right. I had been too busy “going negative” in the other places.

Here’s something you may not know: Fish is not the reward of choice for most whales, and money is not the reward of choice for most humans. Research has shown that money is not the most important motivator for workers. I have seen this proven again and again in my own consulting work with best-of-class firms who don’t pay the best wage. They pay a competitive wage--but certainly not the highest. Conversely, I have consulted with firms that did pay the highest wage, but do not have best-of-class performance results to show for it. The SeaWorld trainers know what motivates each of their animals. You should know what motivates each of your people.

There are no deadbeat whales. Each has a role to fulfill and something to offer. Similarly, there are few deadbeat humans. Each of us has a role and something to offer. Your job as the leader is to figure out what that role is for each person in your department, and what unique contributions they can make to the organization. This may take time, but the payoff will be worth it. Noted author Jim Collins calls it “getting people in the right seats on the bus.”

A final piece of advice from the trainers at SeaWorld involved respect and the concept of just who the boss really is. They stated that, when working with an 80,000-pound animal, they are never really the boss—and that they must treat the orca with respect at all times.

Give respect, and you will get it in return. How do you treat your boss? How about your employees? If you don’t like what you’re getting, perhaps you should change what you’re giving.

Those of us with children will see managerial techniques here that parallel good parenting practices. But, I am not saying you should treat employees like children. What I am pointing out is that whales, children and employees respond more favorably to positive motivation than negative, and that you, the leader, can give more of it. Your employees may not splash you, but they will improve their performance.

Wally Adamchik is President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. Visit the website at www.beaFireStarter.com. He can be reached at 919-673-9499 or wally@beaFireStarter.com.

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