Recognition, Motivation, and How to Train a Whale

RecognitionWhen comedian George Burns received an honorary degree from the University of Hartford at age 92, he said: “I can’t wait to run home and tell my mother about this. She always wanted me to be a doctor.” It’s a funny story, but Burns makes a serious point. Everyone craves recognition, and no one ever outgrows the need for it.

The Family and Work Institute conducted several studies, concluding that the strained business climate of the last few years has bred a “different kind of worker.” Today’s employee is willing to work hard if there is:

  1. Recognition for Achievement
  2. Listening by the Manager
  3. Balance Between Work and Family
  4. Opportunity for Training

Interestingly enough, recognition came out as number one. So what can you do to give recognition that is not only sincere and appreciated but highly motivating as well?


1.  Take a lesson from a whale trainer.

I used to wonder how the trainers at Sea World got Shamu, a 19,000 pound whale, to jump 22 feet out of the water and perform tricks.  I learned the secret when Busch Theme Parks hired me to deliver my “Journey to the Extraordinary” program to their employees … but also took me back stage for a special tour.  It was not what I expected.

From years of speaking to managers in various organizations, I knew how many 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.

The trainers at Sea World take a very different approach, all based on recognition.  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 by giving Shamu a fish, a loving pat, and some play time.

The trainers keep following this procedure, over and over again, 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 with more fish, pats, and play as they slowly raise the rope until it reaches 22 feet.

There are two keys lessons here … lessons that you can use at work and at home with everyone.  First, be a whale trainer that celebrates every success.  And second, under-criticize under-performance.

People, like whales, know when they don’t succeed. All they want, and sometimes all they need, is a little encouragement.

That’s the big picture or the “what” of recognition.  To get more specific with “how” you give motivating recognition, try some of these techniques. And I’ll give you 17 more strategies at my “Journey to the Extraordinary” coming to St. Louis, MO on November 12-13, 2015.


2.  Put recognition on your weekly to-do list.

You probably have a list of all the things you want to accomplish or need to do this week. Just add “employee recognition” to that list. Write down the name of every person who reports to you or every person you work with, and cross off his name after you praise him.


3.  Leave occasional voice-mail praise.

Most of us use voice mail to give out assignments or ask questions. Why not leave a message for a job well done? You can even do it from your cell phone on the way home so it doesn’t take any extra time.


4.  Write notes at the end of the day.

Keep a stack of note cards on your desk so you don’t forget to give the recognition. At the end of the day, take two minutes to write thank-you notes to those employees and coworkers who made a difference that day.

Of course, you’ve got to learn to use the right words with the right tone. You can’t write a note that gives a pat on the back and a kick in the rear end at the same time. You can’t say, “Good report. What took you so long?” Or as Mark Twain once said, “I did not attend his funeral, but I wrote a nice letter saying I approved of it.

Writing is powerful. I find employees keep notes of recognition almost forever. In fact, some of you reading this may even have school report cards or customer letters of appreciation from years ago.

One sales manager of a large real estate office in Florida even goes a step farther. Along with her letter of appreciation, she sends a file folder labeled “Success File.” She tells her employees to file her letter in the folder along with other letters that might be received from colleagues, customers, or anyone. She tells her employees to pull out the file and reread it whenever they fail or just don’t feel good about themselves.


Final Thought:  Too many organizations are like Underachievers Anonymous. When you call them, they answer by asking, “Hello, what is the least we can do for you?” To motivate today’s employee, you’ve got to be asking a different question. You’ve got to be asking, “What’s the best I can do for you?