Over-Celebrate and Under-Criticize

Demanding perfection is demoralizing. Rewarding progress is invigorating.

Did you ever wonder how the trainers at Sea World get Shamu, a 19,000 pound whale, to jump 22 feet out of the water and perform tricks? I just happen to know. One of my clients is Busch Theme Parks, and a while ago they took me back stage for a special tour.

It got me thinking as to how some managers would face this challenge. First, they would hold a strategic planning meeting to decide the rope should be set at 22 feet above the water. Not a bad place to start.

With the goal clearly defined, they would then try to motivate the whale. They’d place a bucket of fish right above the 22 foot rope. After all, there’s no use paying the whale until it meets its numbers.

Many managers would then provide direction. They’d lean over the tank and shout “Jump, whale, jump!” But the whale would stay where it was.

How do the Sea World trainers do it? First, they make sure the whale doesn’t fail. They start with the rope below the surface of the water. Every time the whale swims over the rope, they reinforce this desired behavior. Shamu gets fed a fish, is patted, and played with.

The trainers keep following this procedure, over and over, gradually raising the rope. When the whale goes under the rope, nothing happens. They just ignore the whale. But each time the whale goes over the rope, the trainers reinforce the whale as they slowly raise the rope until it reaches 22 feet.

There are two lessons here. The first thing we learn from the whale trainers is the importance of OVER-CELEBRATING. We’ve got to make a big deal over every success. And second, UNDER-CRITICIZE. People, like whales, know when they don’t succeed. All they want, and sometimes all they need is a little encouragement.

Action:  This week catch someone making progress, and find some way to reward progress. She’ll be delighted, and you’ll be amazed at how well she does the next time around.