HR Strange But True!
August 07, 2008

If you have an employee who continuously fails to meet goals or one who can't seem to master a particular task, you might find some help from an unlikely source--animal trainers!

While doing research for a book about the exotic animal training and management program, explains Amy Sutherland ( in BLR's Best Practices in HR newsletter, she realized that training techniques that worked on baboons and dolphins might also work on her own species.

As humans, "our sort of knee-jerk reaction is to use punishment," she says. However, this runs counter to the animal-training approach; animal trainers ignore behaviors they don't want and reward the behaviors they do, according to Sutherland.

While spending more than a year watching animals and their trainers interact, Sutherland realized that she might actually be reinforcing human behaviors that she didn't want and missing opportunities to reinforce behaviors that she did want. Her most recent book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers (Random House, 2008), discusses that revelation.

Animal training also provides some valuable lessons for HR professionals. For example, being a hard worker is rewarding in and of itself for some employees, but others need positive reinforcement for their efforts, she says. In animal training, "if you don't reinforce a behavior enough, it will disappear ? If you want people to work really hard then it's in your best interest to make sure they get reinforced for that. Don't leave it to chance."

Just as animal rewards must be tailored for a certain species, it is important to customize rewards for individual members of the human species, she says. "Pretty much you could say everybody likes bonuses," but beyond that, find out what is reinforcing for individual workers. For example, in her days as a newspaper reporter, Sutherland found it reinforcing to be left on her own to pursue stories, but other reporters needed a lot of attention from editors.

Sutherland offers a few tips for HR professionals to consider:

Keep rewards and criticism separate. "It's really easy to throw a rotten fish in with a good fish," Sutherland says, referring to bosses who reward an employee for an accomplishment, but then add a comment that the employee needs to improve in a particular area. "People tend to remember the rotten fish."

Don't be quick to punish. Humans generally like to "punish to settle 'who's the boss'," she says. One of the problems with that approach is, employees become desensitized to punishment, and supervisors who overuse it have to "keep raising the bar." She recommends using punishment selectively, imposing it as close to the undesired behavior as possible, and keeping it in proportion to what happened.

Reward only the behaviors you want. Companies that reward employees for perfect attendance or praise ill employees for dragging themselves into the office may be reinforcing unwanted behaviors. Not only will sick workers infect other people, they will not be productive, she says, so don't reward their appearance.

Source: Best Practices in HR

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