Lessons from a dolphin trainer for any manager or parent

Despite my experience raising five kids aged 3 to 18, I’ve been using ineffective parenting techniques for a very long time. As Einstein might have said, I’ve been insane. In trying to shape my children’s behavior, I’ve been doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. And yet it’s not just me, but other parents and, overwhelmingly, other managers. Though the techniques we’ve used for decades are ineffective at best and dehumanizing at worst, we keep using them.

Recently, I learned that animal trainers have known about better ways for decades.

Don’t Shoot the Dog

Dont shoot the dogKaren Pryor is a behavioral biologist, a pioneering dolphin trainer, and an authority on applied operant conditioning—the art and science of changing behavior. In 1984, she wrote “Don’t Shoot the Dog” which describes her behavioral methods and how they apply even beyond animal training.

“I began to notice some applications of the system creeping into my daily life. For example, I stopped yelling at my kids, because I was noticing that yelling didn’t work. Watching for behavior I liked, and reinforcing it when it occurred, worked a lot better and kept the peace, too.”

It’s when she outlined 8 methods for getting rid of undesired behavior that I  clearly saw what I’ve been doing wrong.

A common scenario

Imagine, for example, your young child won’t get dressed for school. (You can substitute any undesirable behavior displayed by your child, spouse, or colleague.) As you read the methods below, think of what you would do.

“Method 1: “Shoot the animal” (This definitely works. You will never have to deal with that particular behavior in that particular subject again.)

Method 2: Punishment. (Everybody’s favorite, in spite of the fact that it almost never really works.)

Method 3: Negative reinforcement. (Removing something unpleasant when a desired behavior occurs.)

Method 4: Extinction; letting the behavior go away by itself.

Method 5: Train an incompatible behavior. (This method is especially useful for athletes and pet owners.)

Method 6: Put the behavior on cue. (Then you never give the cue. This is the dolphin trainer’s most elegant method of getting rid of unwanted behaviors.)

Method 7: “Shape the absence”; reinforce anything and everything that is not the undesired behavior. (A kindly way to turn disagreeable relatives into agreeable relatives.)

Method 8: Change the motivation. (This is the fundamental and most kindly method of all.)”

A better way

An undesired dolphin behavior

So which method would you use? You need the child to get dressed. Time is running short. And so, if you’re like me, you quickly resort to punishment and threats. “If you don’t get dressed, you can’t use the iPad later!” Or, worse, you simply pick the child up and thrust the clothes on them. (Not quite shooting the dog, but certainly showing it who’s boss.)

But try doing that to a killer whale and you’ll quickly be eaten or played with on the bottom of the pool. A dolphin might misbehave in more subtle ways. What Karen Pryor and legions of animal trainers in the last few decades have learned is that positive reinforcement is by far the most effective way to shape desired behaviors. And that changing the motivation is the best way to remove unwanted behaviors.

Most of us are simply ignorant that there’s a better way. It’s why animal trainers can reliably reproduce extraordinary behaviors in animals and we humans resort to yelling, threats, and force. And why one of Karen Pryor’s fellow dolphin researcher said “Nobody should be allowed to have a baby until they have first been required to train a chicken.” (A requirement that should apply to managers, too.)

Worse than ignorance, though, is not being open to the idea of a better way. The “spare the rod, spoil the child” mentality of parents and managers was observed by Karen Pryor when she described people who simply refused to believe she could do what she did with only positive methods.

“One day, while sitting among the audience, I was amused to overhear a professorial type firmly informing his companions that the only way we could be getting that kind of response was by electric shock.”

Try this

Recently, when our young son wouldn’t get dressed, I was about to resort to my usual methods. Then I remembered the book and tried to change the motivation. Instead of “Put your socks on!” I sat down and made a game of it, seeing who could put on their socks fastest. Silly, for sure. But it worked and he was giggling, fully clad, instead of both of us spiraling towards unpleasantness.

What I’m actually doing is training myself. Gradually, I’m learning to stop using punishment and other negative, ineffective techniques. And I’m focusing more on positive reinforcement for behaviors I want and creative ways to change the motivation for behaviors I don’t like.

Try it. Your kids and your colleagues will be glad you did.