A Management Lesson from an Unusual Source

January 9, 2013

This past summer we acquired a new family pet – a dog that my wife named Sammy. (And not a popular choice with our cat, Lexie, but she adapted.) He’s a good dog, and he seems pretty smart. He picked up on how to sit and play fetch without much instruction at all.

But Sammy is an energetic little guy, and he can get carried away when people come over to the house, as in he tends to jump all over them. He eventually settles down, but we thought that it would be a good thing to take Sammy to obedience school.

The trainer started the course out by explaining some basics. As the trainer described today’s training approach in comparison to yesterday’s approach, I couldn’t help but wonder about why we haven’t been as good about managing humans.

According to the trainer, dog training today is focused heavily on positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reinforcement. The underlying belief is that when a dog receives a treat or praise as an immediate consequence of desired behavior, that behavior will increase. (This must be very fast or they will forget what it was they were doing and are now being rewarded for.)

The trainer went on to explain that negative feedback isn’t something she uses, citing that police dog training now emphasizes positive reinforcement because no matter how well-trained the dog appeared to be when using negative reinforcement, it was repeatedly demonstrated that dogs at some point turned on their trainers. Definitely something to avoid!

I started thinking about how many managers out there feel that “management by fear” is still appropriate. Even if they don’t say it, they certainly act like they believe that employees will work better under negative pressure and uncertainty. And this flies in the face of countless research and experience that demonstrates the opposite.

For example, in their paper, Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing, Barbara L. Fredrickson and Marcial F. Losada determined that a positive to negative ratio at or above 2.9 characterizes individuals to be in flourishing state; that is, an optimal state of functioning. People in this state are more able to access their abilities, to grow and to be more productive.

You can operate using fear, but what you’ll get is compliance and not engagement. People will spend their time and energy protecting themselves and their jobs. And – as a study by Amy Edmondson demonstrates – you run the risk of having critical information withheld that hinders an organization’s ability to improve, I first came across this study in Bob Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule

Edmondson discovered that those nursing units with the best leadership reported the most errors. Ten times as many errors. This was because nurses in poorly-run units were too afraid to report errors, even though it was vital to do so.

One question in my mind is: Have we embraced positive reinforcement more broadly for dogs than we have for managing humans?



In answer to your question on the post, I think that, unfortunately, pride gets in our way to say nice things and to encourage each other.

I find that when I motivate the members of my team by acknowledging their achievements, it increases performance and reduces stress.

January 15, 2013 at 6:45 AM
Dave Moran said...


Is it pride, or just the fact that we don't feel it is necessary to use positive reinforcement in the workplace because we feel that people should be expected to "do their job?"

Like you, I've found that acknowledging achievements -- and being genuine about it -- does give a boost to performance because people feel appreciated. Thanks for reading!

January 16, 2013 at 6:41 AM

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