What animal trainers can teach us about improving office culture

Want to improve your office productivity and employee morale? Think like an animal trainer.

Believe it or not, animal training techniques can help make your team more productive.

When looking to boost employee morale, increase team productivity and improve your work environment, the last place you’d likely look for inspiration is the zoo. However, most American professionals can learn a lot from animal behavior experts.

Several years ago, Fast Company published an article called “Your Boss Is a Monkey” that shared tips for handling a difficult manager based on well-established animal training techniques. The advice is equally helpful for supervisors interested in handling challenges within their teams. Here are some strategies you might consider:

Don’t reinforce bad behavior: 

Writer Amy Sutherland shares in The New York Times how, after shadowing trainers handling exotic animals, she walked away with a greater understanding of how she could manage people (specifically, her husband). Sutherland says one of the most important lessons is to ignore undesirable behavior, meeting it with nothing but momentary stillness and an expressionless, “Zen” face. Any reaction, whether positive or negative, is in interaction that could trigger a hard-to-break pattern.

In contrast, we often unknowingly reinforce bad behavior at work. Sometimes our reactions are negative (yelling, frowning or complaining), while other times they seem positive , or even altruistic (picking up the slack to help a team member who never seems to finish their own work). However, either action serves as reinforcement. As much as possible, take Sutherland’s lead and ignore undesirable behaviors.

Reward, don’t punish: 

Instead of responding to undesirable habits, reinforce good ones. Punishment is rarely productive, whether at the zoo or in the workplace, as it breeds negative feelings and frustrates both monkeys and professionals. On the other hand, almost everyone responds well to rewards.

“There are only so many times you can punish an elephant before you wind up a splinter,” write Fast Company contributors Dan and Chip Heath. “Instead, trainers set a behavioral goal, and they reward every tiny step along the journey. At first, the skateboarding baboon gets a chunk of mango for not freaking out when the board is put in his cage. Later, he gets another one for touching the board. And then for sitting on it. Then for letting the trainer push him back and forth on the board. Many sessions later, you’ve re-created Tony Hawk as a mango-bloated baboon.”

The key here is to break down your big goal into micro-goals by reward even small behaviors that represent steps in the right direction. Imagine an employee who chronically misses deadlines. Every time they complete something on time, be sure to praise them. Try setting short-term deadlines they are more likely to meet, and then dish out the rewards.

Training is fun:

Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that man’s best friend loves to learn. Learning a new trick helps to alleviate boredom and promotes bonding between pet and owner. Similarly, employee training allows workers to feel that they are developing their skills and advancing their careers, which is good for morale. In contrast, unhappy workers often point to few opportunities for professional development as a major reason for their discontent.

While sending your team to off-site training seminars can be prohibitively expensive, you can now access all of the materials you need from the comfort of your own work space. Mastery Technologies provides a wide array of course offerings for employee development. Visit mastery.com to browse the course catalog.

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