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Leading in the Splash Zone

Ken Blanchard's <i>Whale Done!</i> proves the power of positive reinforcement with your employees.

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I just finished reading one of those little "pop" management books that so often prove to have a lot more sizzle than steak (or perhaps I should say more odor than cheese?). But this one was quite the opposite--a real gem that I can recommend whole-heartedly. The book's lead author is Ken Blanchard (who also wrote The One Minute Manager), and the title is Whale Done!: The Power of Positive Relationships.

You'll know it by the leaping killer-whale icon on the cover. (See, I warned you it was a "pop" treatment, but stick with me here--it's not as goofy as you might think.) Blanchard has a genuine interest in performing killer whales, and I've heard him weave interesting lessons about whale training into his management teachings before. Why killer whales? Because you simply cannot use many of the standard management techniques with them. If you do, they'll eat you.

Killer whales don't suffer negative feedback as patiently as employees do. They cannot be trained through punishment. This means their trainers must work entirely with positive reinforcement of good behavior--and Blanchard's conviction is that this emphasis on good performance is the stuff great performances are made of. With increased emphasis on "catching people doing something right," as Blanchard likes to say, it becomes less and less necessary to catch anyone doing anything wrong.

Learn More
Read our personal interview with Ken Blanchardfrom the June issue of Entrepreneur magazine.

But keep in mind that Blanchard's approach involves plenty of focused attention on employee (or whale) performance. You don't just let them do what they want. You need to jump into the water with them and work routinely on their performances. In Blanchard's view, the manager needs to be involved in setting performance standards and drawing attention to them through active recognition of good work. And then if it proves necessary to supplement this positive recognition, the manager may occasionally need to correct poor work in a positive way that focuses on what needs to be done.

For fans of The One Minute Manager, this advice may feel familiar. Blanchard revisits and expands on some of his fundamental teachings about goal-setting and feedback in this book, and I recommend managers do the same. A quick brush-up on these essential management skills is always helpful.

But the most exciting idea in Whale Done! may be the observation from killer whale trainers that you cannot teach them to perform until you have gained their trust--or, as the book puts it, until they know you mean them no harm. To build trust, the trainer starts by spending time in the water with a new whale. They play together and develop some ground rules for communicating. This essential first step--creating a positive relationship by spending time with or near the whale--parallels my own findings about management. Often, business leaders struggle to improve performance when the underlying foundations of performance are shaky. In the workplace, too, we must make sure we create the right conditions for great performances. How do you do that?

First, get in the water with your employees, or at least be willing to spend time near enough to the water that you can get a real feel for what they do. The "splash zone" is the section of seats right next to the pool at a killer whale show, and that's where managers need to be in order to make a real connection with their employees. In my work, we call this factor overlap and define it as time spent in meaningful interactions with your employees. Modern work pressures and technologies reduce overlap to the point that employees feel they hardly know their leaders--and so cannot be sure they mean them no harm.

Second, share enthusiasm. Blanchard observes that there is a lot of positive energy when those killer whales perform. They enjoy working with their trainers and putting on their shows, therefore they work hard and well. A positive, can-do attitude is an essential foundation for good performance. Managers often need to attend to their own attitudes first--don't waste that overlap time by spreading your own stress or negativity! Also, think about the emotional message of the workplace itself--is it an up, warm, exciting place to work, or a dull, depressing one? I am sure the folks at SeaWorld would never try to put on a killer whale show in a dirty tank. Environment matters a lot, yet is often overlooked by business leaders.

Once you have established a trust-based relationship with good communications and plenty of overlap, and once you have made sure the general emotional climate is positive and not negative, you will find it a lot easier to set challenging goals and give people positive feedback as they pursue them. The right conditions make peak performance far easier to attain.

And if you find yourself struggling with inadequate performances or performers, think for a moment about those killer whales and their trainers--and remember to get back in the splash zone and rebuild the emotional foundations of success. These are the essential conditions you need to move ahead toward any business goal that requires the participation of your employees.

Alex Hiamis a trainer and consultant and the author ofMotivating & Rewarding Employees: New and Better Ways to Inspire Your Peopleas well asMarketing for Dummies. His new book, Making Horses Drink, will be released by Entrepreneur Press this June in bookstores and will be available on in advance of that date.