Training Animals and People for Extraordinary Performance

The title of a recent Harvard Business Review article caught my attention: “Nearly 40% [of leaders] Never Give Positive Reinforcement”. Wow! That’s pretty remarkable. It’s also remarkably sad, but with all the negative noise around us maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

For me the question isn’t “Why are leaders so negative?”, it’s “Why aren’t leaders more positive with their feedback”? For some it’s a belief that positive reinforcement breeds softness. For others, the management of their job leaves little time for leadership. Lazy leaders often couch it in the “corrective criticism” euphemism. I’ve always thought that term to be an oxymoron. There’s nothing wrong with correction but what often comes through the loudest is criticism.

The problem with a steady diet of correction or “opportunity for improvement” is that it eventually feels like a beat down. Some leaders don’t give any feedback at all. No feedback feels like a beat down too. People will give up or leave if they don’t think they’re making progress. Providing positive reinforcement is more than just a nice thing to do. Failure to balance correction with regular reinforcement is lazy leadership and a huge lost opportunity for productivity and engagement.

Positive or corrective feedback is not an either-or situation. To the contrary, positive reinforcement must exist inside a culture of high expectations to create a high performance team or individual. When correction is needed it should be swift and appropriate. It’s all in how it’s done.

Some time ago I had the opportunity to spend time with a K9 police dog and his handler. I was struck by two things; the amazing control the handler had over the dog and the incredible desire the dog had to perform for his handler. There was nothing soft about the leadership or expectations yet the relationship between the two was amazing. Failure to perform was dealt with swiftly, but there was no place in the training program where punishment or criticism was used; no yelling, no demeaning, no breaking down the animal. What was substituted was correction and the power of positive reinforcement when the task was performed correctly. The dog had probably performed some of the routines over a thousand times but the excitement and praise the dog received from his handler after each task was like if it were happening for the first time. So let’s apply this to people and leadership.

Giving positive feedback is really quite simple. It can be brief and usually is, sometimes just a few seconds is all it takes. It needs to be specific rather than a general remark of “good job”. It should be intermittent and ideally occurs soon after the praise-worthy incident. Of course, it also must be truthful, sincere and heartfelt. Questions such as “What happened? It’s not like you to…” or “Is something wrong? Usually you…” indicate substandard performance while reinforcing your belief in their capability. One of the most powerful habits I’ve developed is to tell people I’m proud of them and that I believe in them. It’s usually coupled with a remark about something they’ve just done right. A culture of affirmation treats people like human beings, not tools. Affirming the positive qualities and actions of people tells them you care. It establishes in them the clarity and safety of knowing how you feel about them. When the need comes to discuss behavior or performance, the foundation you’ve laid with positive affirmations doesn’t challenge their ego, thus leaving them open to focus on their behavior or performance and not on preserving their ego.

At all levels of leadership we must cease the practice of breaking people down to make them stronger. It’s old coaching and old science and it just doesn’t work with humans or animals. When you create a high performance individual or team, they’re often their own biggest critic. You don’t need to pile on more. Your job is to get them back to the performance level you and they know themselves to have.

The goal of any coaching effort is to change or reinforce performance and behavior. Unfortunately, many managers feel that it’s their job to tell their team when they make a mistake, but that making time to provide positive reinforcement is optional. Like a well-trained dog, the right training and correction methods are necessary to produce very high response and performance. Whether you’re developing high performance animals or individuals, setting high expectations in a culture of correction, modeling, and affirmative coaching is the key to creating championship teams.

If you’d help with your training and coaching methods, reach out to me through our website or the “contact us” tab on this page.

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