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Positive Reinforcement with People—It’s Not Hierarchical!

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Few of us are particularly adept at using positive reinforcement with people, even if we do it well with animals. I help people solve challenges with their clients and co-workers frequently, and I especially enjoy cases that involve “superiors” of all kinds: bosses, parents, or coaches. I am often told, “I’m not in charge; I don’t have the power to make a change.” It may seem as though positive reinforcement is hierarchical, and that you can only influence behavior if you are in charge or officially in control, but that is not so.

Using reinforcement up the ladder

I began practicing the use of positive reinforcement “up the ladder” at a young age. My track coaches in high school and college were very harsh, and my first employers in the animal-training field could be considered abusive by today’s standards. While I felt just as oppressed, badgered, bullied, and harassed as everyone else on the team, I discovered that I could improve my situation once I learned to understand and navigate my social environments better.

First, I came to realize that my bosses and coaches were not out to get me. They had their own problems and worries, and their behaviors were shaped by other employees before me, by their own bosses, and by their own experiences. They were doing their best.

I paid close attention to what my coaches and bosses were most interested in...
Next, I paid close attention to what my coaches and bosses were most interested in, the things that were clearly important (reinforcing) to them. For one of my coaches, it was being on time for practice and being well-prepared for that day’s activities. For another coach, it was being respectful and calling him “Sir.” For one boss, it was making sure his own supervisor was impressed, and for another boss it was saving money and coming in under budget. Many times I remember thinking, even before I understood positive reinforcement, that “this guy seems super interested in… (fill in the blank).”

Stumbling across a formula that works

An early incident that comes to mind was an experience I had in high school with my track coach—a man whose idea of training was to berate and shout at students continuously. One cold winter day, I happened to arrive early to track practice and read the day’s workout routine, which the coach always posted on a blackboard in the gym. He had scheduled an outdoor workout that included a run with ankle weights. When it was time for the team to meet, I was already wearing my outdoor sweats and weights. The coach shouted at the latecomers, demanding to know why nobody had taken the time to read the plan and come prepared to work out. Four of us had clearly paid attention and were prepared, but he didn’t acknowledge us. At first I was disappointed, but at least he hadn’t yelled at me directly! As the practice came to a close, I realized that the coach hadn’t raised his voice at me at all during that entire day’s workout. The coach was still critical about the things I needed to improve, but he was kinder and noticeably less harsh. I remember making a mental note, “I need to try this again.” The strategy continued to work, and my relationship with the coach grew stronger. Track became more fun for me, I began to excel at the sport, and the coach personally helped me earn a scholarship to a prestigious university track program.

The training plan

I found myself dealing with similar problems throughout my career. With time, I developed a successful strategy that I was able to replicate. The formula I use for handling difficult bosses and authority figures is very straightforward:

  1. Find the things your boss finds reinforcing; this may take time and observation. Reinforcers might be: coming in under budget, timeliness, impressing his or her boss, publications, awards, public recognition, discussing the local sports team, his or her kids, etc.
  2. Look for the things your boss finds aversive or punishing; again, this may take some time and observation. Examine all of your interactions and the interactions your boss has with other staff members. Punishers might include: someone interrupting his or her lunch, silly or irrelevant questions, rambling e-mails, his or her authority being questioned, unreliability, etc.
  3. Identify instances in which you can alleviate an aversive or deliver a reinforcer
    Identify instances in which you can alleviate an aversive or deliver a reinforcer throughout the day.
  4. Ask yourself, “What do I have the power or ability to do, and what am I less likely to be able to do, considering my position?”
  5. Make a plan, wait for the right opportunities, and execute the plan. Don’t force it; wait to let it happen naturally.
  6. Mean it. Set out to have a genuinely open attitude, and trust that things will fall into place. If you are not sincere, your efforts to reinforce will backfire.

Note about aversives: Is it you?

Make sure that you are not the cause of the problem. Does your boss seem to get annoyed by you? Are you the recipient of his wrath regularly? Does everyone else on staff seem to receive better treatment than you do? If so, ask yourself why. If you are creating aversives for your boss, you must eliminate them before you can attempt to use reinforcers.

Applying the formula

A zoo trainer, someone I will refer to as Sherry, felt that her boss, Dave, seldom assigned her the best projects. She felt passed over and overlooked. She also felt that Dave was a bully who made terrible decisions that made no sense, that he always got defensive when she asked him questions, and that he never took the time to explain his decisions to her. I asked Sherry if she showed as much contempt for Dave when she interacted with him as she was demonstrating in describing the problem to me. I suggested that although Sherry simply wanted to understand Dave’s policies, Dave likely perceived her as a troublemaker, always challenging authority. Sherry and I looked for ways she could reframe her questions and not put Dave on the defensive. At first, Sherry felt that she was being manipulative, and she worried that it would seem that she was “brown-nosing” or “kissing up to the boss.” I explained that she was simply giving Dave what he was looking for: respect and courtesy. A co-worker might perceive her actions as insincere, but what matters is how Sherry means it—and how Dave perceives it and responds to it.

When a relationship is broken, both sides have the power to start over and demonstrate good will. Sadly, people’s egos get them stuck at an impasse because they can’t bring themselves to be nice to someone they dislike. It becomes a vicious cycle. If we want to see change, we have to take on the responsibility to make the first move.

Once Sherry had a less contentious relationship with Dave, she was poised to start finding behaviors to reinforce. One of the reinforcers that seemed to motivate Dave was praise and recognition from his own boss. One day, Dave’s supervisor complimented Sherry on a particularly innovative enrichment device in the warthog exhibit. Sherry saw her opportunity and said, “Thanks so much, but it was Dave who really encouraged the team to create these types of enrichments.” The statement was truthful, sincere, and it wasn’t overly enthusiastic, which made it effective. Over the course of the next year, Sherry found other opportunities to bring Dave recognition from his supervisor. Dave became more cordial and more helpful, and Sherry realized that her long-term quest to change Dave’s behavior was working. She began receiving better assignments, and no longer felt overlooked.

Be sincere

The laws of learning apply across all species; we should not forget that this includes the human animal as well.
Sherry’s case is not unique. Over the years I’ve coached many trainers successfully in the use of positive reinforcement with the people in their lives. It is a process that takes time and careful thought, and requires empathy and understanding of the other person’s perspective and needs. It cannot be rushed and must be approached in a sincere manner.

The laws of learning apply across all species; we should not forget that this includes the human animal as well.

Happy Training,


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