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Some Bosses Are Barking Up the Wrong Tree

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If you want better employees, maybe what you need is a little dogged pursuit. That strategy has worked for years in Karen Pryor's world.

Teaching humans is a lot like training other mammals, says Pryor, a behavioral biologist in the Boston area. Her classic book from the 1980s, "Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training," still stands up well today because it has lots of practical advice and common sense, rather than the buzzwords that fill so many workplace books.

Animal trainers can't exactly sit down with their pupils and give hour-long performance reviews. They have a simpler strategy, one that many bosses overlook, Pryor said in a recent interview: They look for ways to reinforce good behavior rather than being preoccupied with bad behavior.

"We don't think of getting more of what we like. We're so concerned with what we don't like," she said. "When you start looking for what you actually like, you get sharper at spotting it."

Most animals need to approach difficult tasks in small increments, and they need encouragement and reinforcements along the way, Pryor said. If their trainers don't give reinforcements until the entire task is done perfectly, the animals will give up long before the lesson has been learned.

"One of the biggest mistakes we make in the workplace is expecting 100 percent when people can't even do 20 percent," Pryor said.

When animal trainers observe good behavior, they reinforce it immediately. They also respond immediately to bad behavior, but rarely use punishment or threats the methods that are often staples for human bosses.

"Trying to change people's behavior by social dominance is clumsy: I'm the boss, you're an idiot, do it my way."

Relying on punishment and pressure also means that bosses rarely reinforce any good behaviors that employees are exhibiting, Pryor said. And if they do, it's often way too late, such as during an annual performance review.

Reinforcements need to come promptly, even for small improvements, Pryor said. "By and large, the less talking, the better. Something tangible not necessarily money is better."

She said that what often works well is a pleasant surprise, such as an impromptu party or giving people an afternoon off.

The book lists eight basic ways of responding to negative behaviors in all aspects of life, including an example involving a lazy employee. If the employee is lazy, the boss can:

  • Fire him.
  • Criticize him, preferably in front of others. Dock his pay, or at least threaten to.
  • Scrutinize everything that he does, pointing out each time that his performance is unacceptable.
  • Ignore the behavior, if you think it's a desperate way for the employee to get attention. Pryor warns that if the employee is truly lazy, though, this method won't work.
  • Tell him to work quicker or harder on one particular task. Praise the job when he finishes.
  • Give everyone a little time to goof off, so they can get it out of their systems.
  • Praise him strongly for anything he does satisfactorily. Pryor does not suggest doing this forever, but simply seeing if it will get the employee on the right course.
  • Pay him for the work he gets done, not for the hours he puts in. Some people are far more disciplined if they know that their reward will be a shorter workday, Pryor said.

She said in the interview that many bosses depend too much on the first four responses, even though the remaining four are more likely to help the worker improve. Certainly incompetent workers deserve to get fired, Pryor said, but often all they need is better training or a more suitable assignment.

Too many bosses also rely on their best workers to perform every task, even unappealing ones, she said. That reinforces a couple of behaviors that bosses might not really want, punishing good workers for their knowledge, and subtly telling everyone that if you stay ignorant, you'll have a more comfortable workload.

"You learn to hide your light under a bushel," Pryor said.

Dave Murphy is the San Francisco Chronicle's workplace columnist. His Web site is at www.couchpotatoguide.com.
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