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Your Boss Is a Monkey

"Managing up" using the tricks of exotic-animal training

Exotic-animal trainers need a great poker face. Let's say you're a trainer, and one day, a beluga whale spits a mouthful of cold water at you. Your first instinct will be to shriek or jump or curse, but any reaction will probably reinforce the spitting. If you react, that whale will own you, and you'll be a Spit Bull's-eye for the rest of your life. Instead, you must ignore it and appear unfazed, expressionless -- a training technique called "least-reinforcing scenario," or LRS.

The writer Amy Sutherland studied animal trainers who could teach whales not to spit, dolphins to jump through hoops, and monkeys to ride skateboards. One day, it hit her: What if she used those techniques on her husband? This epiphany led her to write her witty and engaging new book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage. Shamu proves that behavioral training works on whales and husbands. But let's apply Sutherland's approach to another irritable mammal: your boss. Maybe you should start treating him or her like an exotic animal.

Say your boss is a yeller. If he yells and you slink off to do his bidding -- or if you yell back or cry -- then you'll be a Yell Bull's-eye for the rest of your life. Your strong reaction reinforces his behavior. Next time, stifle him with an LRS. Make your face blank, make it Zen, make it Vulcan. After a moment of nonresponse, continue the conversation calmly. Your apparent indifference will smother the fire.

Such a behavioral approach defies the classic "managing up" literature, which is full of soft-skills advice on "mutual understanding," "expectation setting," and "difficult conversations." Some of this work is useful, if a bit goody-two-shoes ("Assess your boss's working style!"). But advice about aligning styles and expectations isn't always the holy grail. How else to explain a trainer in California who taught six elephants to stand in a line and urinate on command? They hadn't even completed a Myers-Briggs test.

Animal trainers have a saying: It's never the animal's fault. That means you can't blame an animal for something the trainer has failed to do. Similarly, you can't fault your boss's bad behavior when you've failed to use some of the primary principles of training. Rule one, as we've seen with the yeller, is to ignore bad behavior.

Rule two is that any interaction is training. You may be unknowingly reinforcing behaviors you don't want. Polar bears, for instance, instinctively pace in their enclosures, and they seem to like it. But it bugs tourists, who worry that the bears are neurotic. Trainers sometimes toss the bears a ball to play with, in hopes that they will cut it out. So the polar bears learn a lesson: Pace for a long time, get a ball. Great!

If you've ever grudgingly tossed your dog a french fry after 15 minutes of begging, you've taught the dog a lesson -- persistence pays. So what are you inadvertently teaching your boss? Do you indulge his long-winded storytelling? Do you laugh at his jokes that are demonstrably unfunny? Has your boss learned that if he plans poorly enough, you'll pick up the slack? If so, you're letting the boss believe, "I'm a great storyteller, I'm a comedian, and if I plan poorly, my workload shrinks."

Rule three is the most important: Reward the behavior you want. Animal trainers rarely use punishment these days. There are only so many times you can punish an elephant before you wind up a splinter. 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.

We are all terrible reinforcers. We love to bond with our colleagues through communal complaining about the boss. Sutherland calls this behavior "verbal grooming." But this is all wrong -- we need to be rewarding good behaviors, however tiny. If you want your boss to change, you'd better get a little less stingy with the mango.

Let's say your boss always makes your life hell before deadlines. The pressure makes him abrasive and pushy. The first time he manages to stay calm and reasonable, tell him, "It always impresses me how calm you stay under pressure." He eats the mango. The next time he stays calm, you volunteer to take a small task off his to-do list. He eats the mango. And many mangoes later, he thinks to himself, proudly, "I'm the calm-under-pressure guy." He's happier and you're happier. Now you can start working on his skateboarding.

Maybe you're troubled that this sounds like sheer manipulation. Yup, it is. But let's face it: We're all trying to be manipulative anyway; we're just not very good at it. We huff and puff and complain to our friends, as if the act of complaining will correct the problem. But Shamu never jumped through a hoop because a trainer was bitching about her. Furthermore, trainer-style manipulation is pretty friendly -- ignore some behaviors and reward others. We're not calling for Taser training here.

Be careful, though. What's good for managing up is good for managing down. And that's okay. Ultimately, it just means that we'll all be praised and rewarded more often. So be happy if, sometime in the near future, you show up to work on time and your boss flips you a chunk of mango.

Read more Made to Stick columns

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the best-selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.