Employee Engagement – Correct Positive Enforcement

Think about it. We can try our best to give specific, focused reinforcement all day long. But if people don’t trust us, our re- inforcement becomes punishing instead of positive. You can’t fake integrity.

Five Apes And a Banana

So I’m sitting at the Sydney Opera House watching the sail- boats on the bay as people walk across the top of the bridge. Pretty cool being here in Oz (Aussie-speak for their country). And my dear mate Doug begins to tell me a story about five apes and a banana:

So what you do Bill, is you put four apes in a cage, with a clump of bananas at the opposite end. Apes absolutely love bananas, more than anything else. Now, the four apes are looking around at each other trying to decide who’s the alpha male and who will make the first move on the bananas. Soon enough, the big one decides it’s his turn.

And so he begins to saunter up for his tasty prize. At this point you take ice cold water in a fire hose and hose him down and knock him to the back of the cage and continue the hose- down operation on all the apes. And then you have four wet, shivering apes. Now, as much as apes love bananas, they hate being wet.

So now you introduce the fifth ape. You don’t want to be that lad, since he walks into the cage with four wet apes on one end and some really juicy bananas on the other. Figuring he’s the alpha male, he makes his move on the bananas; and before he takes his second step, the other apes will grab him and drag him to the back of the cage and beat him mercilessly.

Universal Truth: Nobody—not even an ape—wants to get hosed.

The Moral of the Story

When you introduce R+ into your culture, you may think you are on a level playing field, but quite often you are not. You’re likely to discover that the culture you’ve stepped into exists somewhere in the R- basement, below the level play- ing field. Even worse, you may come to work in a toxic culture where years of punishment have created the labor union/man- agement “us/them” mentality. You may be 43 stories below the Ground Floor of R+.

Sometimes, the five-apes-and-a-banana culture is so in- grained that it may seem that even a “bunker buster” of R+ cannot crack it. Understand which floor your culture is on before you start your behavior-change process. An assessment is a good way to start.

Know that some employees will resist your efforts, having been hosed down many times before.

It’s important that you never give up as you “turn the battle- ship” of culture.

Now, most managers think they do a great job of reinforcing their people. To get the real story, you have to ask the employ- ees. And sometimes the real story isn’t that pretty.

Many managers need some serious training in how to get R+ right. Rose’s boss probably thought that she was doing Rose a big favor by choosing her as Employee-of-the-Year. Sadly, it was Rose’s worst nightmare.

Remember how Bob Nelson puts it, “You get the best results by creating a fire within people, not by lighting a fire under them.” It’s worth repeating.

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