Monday, November 16, 2009

What My Dog Taught me About Team Motivation

LolaSquint Business Strategies

It may seem odd that I choose to talk about what my dog’s taught me, especially if I’m referring to lessons that apply to business, but bear with me.

I’ve owned dogs for a good portion of my life.  I grew up having anywhere from one to seven dogs up until the age of 12.  I’ve been away from dogs and had more cats since then.  When we owned dogs I’d seen how my father treated them (very kindly) and how the dogs knew by instinct that he was the “pack leader.” 

I recently had to revisit the whole notion of owning a dog.  When my family and I brought home an eight month old pit bull from the shelter early this year, we signed up for a dog training class to insure she was well behaved.  The trainer used classic conditioning, meaning negative reinforcement.  I’d seen how his dogs reacted around him: they were very obedient and well behaved.  So, I thought nothing of his technique. 

In fact, our dog spent eight weeks in the class and did well learning the basic commands.  As the weeks and months passed and our dog began to mature, we noticed she was ignoring our commands more often.  My wife recommended we try “Clicker” training classes.  At first I was hesitant.  I’d heard about and seen clicker training on the Animal Channel.  It was the antithesis of the classic training.  It focused on using ONLY positive reinforcement.  The process took longer, but the dog or cat learned the skills and kept them for a longer period.  What’s more, the animals seem to really enjoy the process. 

I went to a local class with much hesitation and doubt, but I’ll tell you that after our four-hour session I was a changed man.  I’ve become a complete believer in the system.  Our dog has begun enthusiastically and attentively executing our commands.  She’s very responsive during and outside of the training sessions we hold at home and at the park.

This made me think whether pure positive reinforcement would work to motivate at work.  After all, we’re all creatures that enjoy a pat on the pack, a fatter check, or a public praise. 

As I searched back in my experience I noticed two distinct scenarios: one where I’d used negative reinforcement most of the time and another where I used positive reinforcement most of the time.  These are the results I remembered and documented:

  • Negative Reinforcement
    • Technique: Here I used mostly threat of punishment, like loss of a promotion, a raise, or their employment.
    • Result: We were often able to achieve the results in a very short amount of time.  In fact, this technique works best if stakeholders on an initiative have in mind some immediate results that must be achieved in a very short amount of time.  This technique is especially useful when working with people you’ve not worked with before and don’t know well enough to understand their motivations.
    • Side-Effect: We often lost the employees on whom we had exerted force or with whom we used negative reinforcement.  Unfortunately, we also had a fall-out effect, meaning, some sympathizers who didn’t want to suffer through the same fate exited the company before we had the opportunity to use any such techniques on them. 
  • Positive Reinforcement
    • Technique: Here I resorted to rewarding results desired with extra time off, bigger bonuses, and public praises
    • Result: We achieved the results, but it took a long time.  This was often because the people I worked with didn’t know me well and, so, didn’t trust that I would deliver on the promises I made.  In situations where I’d already established a trust based on delivering what I’d promised, we were able to achieve the results in a short amount of time.
    • Side-Effect: I recall in at least one circumstance where we had coworkers from other groups approach us and ask if they could transfer to our group.  In fact, we received praises from other managers who had larger teams but were unable to achieve the results we had with the smaller team.  In other words, not only did our teams love working with us and delivering the results, other teams wanted to join us!

So, what’s the moral of the story? Reinforce the behavior you want through positive rewards and, where possible, avoid negative reinforcement. 

I know you may be concerned that people will take advantage of you.  After all, if there are no negative consequences to actions, wouldn’t you end up with unmotivated coworkers or, worse yet, a free-rider problem?

That’s a good point and one I’ll address in next week’s blog under Business Strategies.

What Do You Think?

I’d love to hear what you learned about business from an unlikely place.  Feel free to share your stories below.