Lessons From Killer Whales

“It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.”

I heard Tom Brokaw say that, and I thought, “How true!” We all need to be in the business of making a difference, starting with the people right next to us — our coworkers and customers.

Of course, the really good companies know this. They make a difference in the lives of their people so they can make a difference in the business. Bill Marriott, Jr., the CEO of Marriott Hotels, said, “Motivate employees, train them, care for them, and make winners of them. At Marriott we know that if we treat our employees correctly, they’ll treat the customers right. And if the customers are treated right, they’ll come back.” You’ve got to start by making a difference in the employees’ lives.

Richard Sloan reiterated that point in “The Turnaround Manager’s Handbook.” He said, “People are a firm’s most important asset. If you have an excellent product but only mediocre people, the results will be only mediocre.” You’ve got to make a difference in your people if you want to make an impact on the market.

Of course, you may be thinking, “That sounds nice, but how do I do that?” One of the best models comes from Sea World. They have perfected the model of making a difference or bringing out the best in others.

And strangely enough, they perfected the model on killer whales — which aren’t so different from people. Just teasing. But their techniques DO work on people. Ken Blanchard wrote about that in his book “Whale Done.”

For years, Sea World had used a negative approach to whale training. If a whale didn’t perform the way he was supposed to, he was punished in some way. His food might have been taken away, or he may have been denied access to female companionship, whatever.

But one day, a whale almost killed one of his trainers. The old Sea World model had back fired. And to Sea World’s credit, they completely changed their training program. They stopped using their negative approach and switched to a positive reinforcement model. In a mere three days, there was a total change in the behavior of the violent killer whale.

The good news is this technique will work for you as well. If you want to keep your best employees, if you want to keep your marriage together, if you want to keep your teenager out of trouble, if you want to bring the best out of anybody, you need to understand this model and how behavior works.

At it’s simplest,


For example, if you put a dollar in a vending machine and get a soft drink back, you’re getting a positive consequence. You’re getting reinforced for putting in your dollar, and if you wanted another soft drink when you were near that machine, you’d probably put in another dollar.

On the other hand, if you put in a dollar three different times, and if you never get anything back, you’re getting a negative consequence. You probably wouldn’t use that machine again.

In each case, your behavior was modified by the consequence it received. Positive consequences make you repeat certain behaviors. And negative consequences tend to stop certain behaviors.

If you remember that, and if you apply this principle in your interactions with other people, you will be vastly more successful with them.

In simple terms, here’s how you do it.


As you go into work, as you walk around your workplace, actually look for things that are working. Catch people doing things right. And tell them about it.

Avoid the “already-know” syndrome. Don’t assume your coworkers already know they’re doing a good job. And even if they do know it, they need to hear it.


That will take time, but time put into quality interactions will eventually lend to honest, trusting relationships. You might even develop a sheet of questions to ask your coworkers or employees to stay on top of what they do.

You might have a list of core questions you ask everyone, such as, “What was your biggest obstacle last month, and how did you overcome it?” Other questions are customized for each individual, such as, “How did you solve that design problem for the Michelson account?” or “How are your customers responding to your new help-line procedures?”

You might even hold monthly clear-the-air sessions. Smart managers want their employees to complain. After all, every employee has at least one problem with the department, and if the employees aren’t complaining to the manager, they’re telling somebody else. Or they’re keeping it inside until they leave or explode.

Encourage complaints. But don’t hold these clear-the-air sessions in the conference room, because people may feel like they’re at work and won’t talk as freely. Meet at a coffee shop, for example, on the first Friday of every month — on company time. And to encourage people to open up, don’t allow anyone to attack anyone else.


As strange as it may sound, people want to learn. They want their minds to be excited and turned on rather than lulled by apathy and boredom. So ask yourself, “What am I doing to make the work and the workplace a bit more exciting? And what could I do to eliminate any elements of boredom on the job?”

One simple thing you could do is to “spice” up the rewards and recognition you give your coworkers. Get creative. Lois Hart gives lots of great ideas in her book, “Connections: 125 Activities For Faultless Training.” She says you could give:

* a rubber band to someone who stretched a lot to help others,

* an egg timer to a person who has been especially patient,

* a joke book to someone who keeps the group’s spirits up,

* a pillow to people who have a well-earned rest coming to them,

* a pin to someone who helped to keep the group’s work area neat,

* a ruler to someone who grew a lot during a change process,

* a mirror to someone who took a good look at himself and how he might do things differently,

* a toy turtle to someone who worked slowly but surely, or

* a broad-brimmed hat for a person with a big vision.

Whatever rewards you give, make sure they fit the behavior that is being rewarded. And attach a label to each “prize” that explains what quality it recognizes — as well as the recipient’s name.

There’s an old myth going around that says you can’t motivate anyone else. Not true! You can influence, change, reinforce, or motivate better behavior in others if you use the right techniques. Start with a few of these techniques.

Action:  Pick out one behavior in a person that you would like to modify. Carefully examine your response to that person’s behavior. See if there is anything you are doing that might be encouraging or reinforcing that person’s behavior.

And then choose a different response to that person’s behavior. Do something that would encourage him/her to do it differently. You can try some of the techniques listed in today’s Tip.