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You Can Learn From Shamu

By Christopher M. Leporini, REALTOR® Magazine

How is your top salesperson like a five-ton killer whale? It might sound like a setup for a cruel punch line, but the answer has serious implications for the way you manage your office, according to Ken Blanchard, Thad Lacinak, Chuck Tompkins, and Jim Ballard, authors of Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships (The Free Press, 2002; $19.95). They argue that embracing the same principles that Sea World trainers employ to keep killer whales motivated and productive can make you a better manager. The book teaches you how to stir up your salespeople or assistants, without acting like a shark.

The book reunites Ken Blanchard (author of The One Minute Manager) with frequent collaborator Ballard. They’re joined as authors by Lacinak and Tompkins, who hold over twenty-five years experience apiece working with killer whales. It traces the journey of fictional manager Wes Kingsley, who discovers a killer management style during a fateful visit to Sea World. Orcas are among the ocean’s most fearsome predators, capable of dining on almost anything that they see. Wes wonders how the trainers convince these leviathans to perform. He finds the answer isn’t only simple, it applies to people as well. It all comes down to establishing trust and building relationships.

Both people and whales perform better when you create a positive work environment, the authors say. This idea forms the backbone of the Whale Done! approach, which concentrates on accentuating the positive, rather than the common “GOTcha” management tactic of trying to catch people in mistakes and then punishing them. For killer whales, a punishment-centered approach carries obvious dangers. (Would you want to get in the water with Shamu, if you knew he was carrying a grudge?) But it’s no less counterproductive in the workplace, breeding fear and resentment.

Instead, the book advocates two primary methods to motivate employees. The first is to employ positive reinforcement—using the carrot (or the fish) rather than the stick—to drive workers. Don’t try to catch people screwing up, try to catch them doing things right and then give them a hearty “Whale Done!” This involves more than tossing them a few insincere, generic pats on the back. “If you’re insincere with a whale, the animal will know,” the book says. “You can’t fool a killer whale.” People aren’t much different. A full-blown Whale Done response includes:

  • Praising people immediately.
  • Including specifics about what they did right, or almost right.
  • Sharing your positive feelings about what they did.
  • Encouraging them to keep up the good work.

But what about when a salesperson makes a mistake that costs you a listing? After all, you can hardly ignore poor performance or negative behavior. The book advises a technique called redirection—taking the energy from negative behavior and refocusing it in a positive way. The idea is to get the employee on track, without being destructively critical. This involves these basic steps:

  1. Describing the error or problem as soon as possible, clearly, and without assigning blame.
  2. Showing the error’s negative impact.
  3. If appropriate, taking the blame. In other words, if the mistake resulted from you not giving them enough information, don’t take it out on them.
  4. Going over the task in detail.
  5. Expressing trust that the salesperson can accomplish the task.

These methods might sound simplistic, but Sea World trainers have successfully used them to establish relationships with killer whales.

Whale Done! communicates its core ideas simply and effectively, and the natural appeal of its hook is obvious. Some readers might find themselves scared off by its relatively high price for a low page count–$19.95 for 128 pages. But ask yourself how much one good idea is worth–the book’s novel look at how to establish positive relationships might justify the cost for you. After all, if these methods work on Shamu, why not make them work for you?

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This post was contributed exclusively for REALTOR® Magazine.

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