So, Employers: The Newspaper – or the Biscuit?

Author, artist and dog owner Elizabeth Creith speaks to the superior effect of positive reinforcement on performance. 

Dog trainingI’ve trained dogs since I was about ten years old, and I know that there are two ways to train a dog: You can punish it when it does something wrong, or you can reward it when it does something right. Life and dogs being what they are, inevitabley you’ll do some of both.

A dog who gets the rolled-up newspaper is a dog who is anxious to avoid your anger, but a dog who learns to expect pats and biscuits is a dog who is eager to do what you want.

Most of my experience as an employee has involved more rolled-up newspapers than biscuits. I had one manager whose style was “you’d better”, as in “you’d better get that data entry caught up”. When I ran up overtime to meet her deadline, she hit the roof and told me I couldn’t do that. Whenever I made the deadline, I heard nothing. That boss was all newspaper, no biscuits.

Fast-forward 25 years, and the language has changed. I no longer make mistakes – I now have “coaching opportunities”. I no longer hear “you’d better”; instead it’s “How can we improve this?” But a glossy newspaper is still a newspaper, and no biscuit is still no biscuit.

Most people do the work they do in large part because they need the money. The money is, in a way, like the bowl of dog food. There’s a minimum level of performance required to get that dog food. For the dog, it’s being there for dinner, not biting the family, learning the commands that make it possible for everyone to coexist. For a human in a job you could characterize a minimum level of performance as “work to rule” – doing what the job requires in order to keep the paycheque coming.

A dog who gets a pat and a cookie for coming on command will do it faster next time. People who feel their efforts are noticed and appreciated will make more effort. More to the point, they will be happier. They will be more likely to stay. The employer/employee contract is basic and unemotional; so much work for so much money. Such a contract is also fragile. If someone comes along offering more money for the same work, the contract is off.

Emotional bonds – pleasure in one’s work, happiness with the corporate environment, the experience of being noticed and recognized – are stronger and more lasting. They also take effort to create. Hand out a few biscuits from time to time. Put away that newspaper.

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