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On My Mind: The Mean Boss

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Click the boss

One time at a conference I shared a breakfast table with a woman who was an executive in an oil company. Finding out what I do for a living, she expressed a firm belief in reinforcement, and told me the following story.

She had a mean boss. He was brutal: blaming, finding fault, belittling, angry. Everyone was alarmed to see him come into their office and glad to see him go, including the woman who was telling me the story.

little dog barking at big dog

"This makes no sense at all," she told herself. So she developed a tactic. When he came to talk to her, if his tone was pleasant, she looked at him. If his words became unpleasant, she looked away. If the voice became normal again, she looked back. When the boss stayed calm, she offered him candy.

By and by, he got nicer. Poor man, she thought, probably no one is ever nice to him, since he preempts any conversation with angry behavior.

The boss began to be calmer with others, so much so that people were commenting that he seemed to be in a good mood lately. So then the woman passed on her "secret"—look away and look back. Everyone tried this, and the whole climate of the office changed. Now she's happy, and so is everyone else, a lot more work gets done, and people even stay late sometimes.

Message from Mimi

I was telling my upstairs neighbor this story, and she said, "That's what Mimi does." Mimi is a petite cream-colored Burmese cat, now quite elderly, that used to belong to me. She stayed with this neighbor when I travelled. Eventually, since it's a lot less boring upstairs where several people live than it is in my first-floor apartment with just me, Mimi moved upstairs permanently and has lived there ever since.

But remember, she was once my cat, so Mimi is a clicker cat and knows about behavior.

My neighbor went on to explain:

"Mimi looks away when she doesn't like what I'm doing. And when she likes it, she looks right at me with this warm, bright-eyed, eager expression. I'd do anything to earn that expression! So she's taught me what she likes and what she doesn't like. In fact she's taught everyone in the house. Take Robert, for example. Mimi's sitting on his lap and he's scratching her chest. After a while, she looks away. Oops! Robert stops scratching. 'She told me that was enough scratching; she looked away.' Mimi doesn't want to leave, because he's warm and cozy and she likes sitting on his lap, but she made her thoughts clear."

The cat knows what works for her!

Try this at home, at work, in the neighborhood, at the market…

Do you have a nagger, a whiner, a blamer, or a teaser in your life? Those behaviors are commonplace because they work. You give people who behave this way attention, even in just trying to stop them. How about trying what my breakfast companion and Mimi knew? Looking away, by itself, doesn't do the trick. It's the looking BACK (perhaps with Mimi the cat's smiling eyes?) in the instant the unpleasant tone stops that makes it work.

Karen Pryor

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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

Two similar stories...

I have two stories like this:

I once had a boss who I actually liked quite a bit, but he'd sometimes spend too much time chatting with me at my desk when I wanted to either be working, or visiting some email discussion list (this was in the days we'd discuss this stuff in forums like Click-L and ClickerSolutions). He'd often start by stopping by to see if I had some report or another, and I'd hand it to him. When I realized I wanted to reinforce him for staying in his office, I started telling him it just wasn't ready quite yet, then waited 'til he was back in his office and brought it to him, when I was ready to hang out and chat.

Shortly after that, I decided I wanted to train the bus drivers in SF to greet me nicely. I went through the trouble of being polite even in the morning on my way to work; the least I deserved, I figured, was acknowledgement. So I came upon this plan: I would present my bus pass as a R+, and withhold it otherwise. My first criteria was that they had to look at me; if they even glanced I'd cheerfully show them bus pass; if they did not I "forgot" to pull it out. After a while I raised criteria to include some sort of vocalization - it could be a greeting, a grunt, or the demand "bus pass!", as long as it was a vocal noise. After a while, another increase: Now it had to be a *pleasant* vocalization of some sort. 

Within a few weeks I had three different drivers greeting me nicely. One even became very friendly, chatting with me about the weather and being sure to show that he was seeing me when I crossed in front of the bus after disembarking so as to not run me over.

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