From Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work

The Whale Story

Celebrate what you want to see more of.

Tom Peters

Have you ever wondered how the whale and porpoise trainers at Sea World get Shamu, the 19,000-pound whale, to jump 22 feet out of the water and perform tricks? They get that whale to go over a rope farther out of the water than most of us can imagine. This is a great challenge—as great as the ones you and I face as parents, coaches or managers.

Can you imagine the typical American managerial approach to this situation? The first thing we would do would be to get that rope right up there at 22 feet—no sense celebrating shortcomings. We call that goal-setting, or strategic planning. With the goal clearly defined, we now have to figure out a way to motivate the whale. So we take a bucket of fish and put it right above that 22-foot rope—don’t pay the whale unless it performs. Then we have to give direction. We lean over from our nice high and dry perch and say, “Jump, whale!”

And the whale stays right where it is.

So how do the trainers at Sea World do it? Their number one priority is to reinforce the behavior that they want repeated—in this case, to get the whale or porpoise to go over the rope. They influence the environment every way they can so that it supports the principle of making sure that the whale can’t fail. They start with the rope below the surface of the water, in a position where the whale can’t help but do what’s expected of it. Every time the whale goes over the rope, it gets positive reinforcement. It gets fed fish, patted, played with, and most important, it gets that reinforcement.

But what happens when the whale goes under the rope? Nothing—no electric shock, no constructive criticism, no developmental feedback and no warnings in the personnel file. Whales are taught that their negative behavior will not be acknowledged.

Positive reinforcement is the cornerstone of that simple principle that produces such spectacular results. And as the whale begins to go over the rope more often than under, the trainers begin to raise the rope. It must be raised slowly enough so that the whale doesn’t starve, either physically or emotionally.

The simple lesson to be learned from the whale trainers is to over-celebrate. Make a big deal out of the good and little stuff that we want consistently. Secondly, under-criticize. People know when they screw up. What they need is help. If we under-criticize, punish and discipline less than is expected, people will not forget the event and usually will not repeat it.

In my opinion, most successful businesses today are doing things right more than 95 percent of the time. Yet what do we spend the majority of our time giving feedback on? That’s right—the 2, 3, 4, maybe even the 5 percent of things that we don’t want repeated and didn’t want to happen in the first place.

We need to set up the circumstances so that people can’t fail. Over-celebrate, under-criticize . . . and know how far to raise the rope.

Charles A. Coonradt

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