Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Don't Shoot Your Colleagues

Over the course of my life a realization slowly dawned on me about feedback. Negative feedback rarely worked. And positive feedback worked magically!

I started noticing this in myself first. I was learning rapidly and growing in environments where all I received was positive feedback. And wherever people were very cynical, I was just lost in thoughts and not growing.

Then I took this observation seriously and did experiments. In JeevaRaksha trainings, for example, instead of giving the recommended "sandwich feedback" (in which you start with a positive feedback, then talk about something to be improved, and then wrap up with another praise) I switched to a "positive-only feedback" technique. And it worked well. People who were not very confident as trainers and made a lot of mistakes where becoming very confident and trying really hard and staying on as trainers. Over time they fixed their mistakes on their own.

I have to admit that I was very hesitant to do this. I used to think I was "lying". When other people did this to me I considered them "manipulative". And I used to pride myself on being very balanced with my views — talking about positives and negatives — sometimes even balancing others' positive views by talking more about negatives.

And I still find it insincere when people are just praising an act in general without being specific on why they are praising it. "Great job", "Great news", "Fantastic" — all of this sounds insincere to me.

And therefore I wasn't sure about what this observation-experiment-result meant. That all changed today.

I was watching videos of button pressing dogs and then a response video by KP, in which KP recommended this book called "Don't Shoot the Dog". That book confirmed everything I was vaguely thinking about feedback.

It is written by Karen Pryor who used to train dolphins. The thing about dolphins is that it is really hard to punish dolphins. If you try to do anything, the dolphins will just swim away. So, to get dolphins to change their behaviour and do something that you want it to do, your only option is to give them fish. Reward. Positive feedback is all you have with dolphins.

This, apparently, works very well for dolphins. And dogs. And cats. And all kinds of animals. Including humans. Including adult humans.

In fact, the book makes no distinction between dogs and humans in its chapters. It gives you lessons on positive reinforcements, shaping, negative reinforcements, and a lot of theory on how to think about all this. Including on why this is not "manipulation".

I won't spoil the whole book, but it basically says that positive reinforcements are much better than punishments. It forces you to switch away from the "traditional" training style of shouting at people or punishing them, and move to a style that actually works.

The book was written much before "like" buttons were invented. But, if you read it carefully you can see that it explains much of how technology has been shaped to harness this kind of "manipulation" as well.

If you are a "manager" of anything, or a parent, or a pet-owner, you should read this book. In general, if you want to change others' behaviour, this is a must-read.

It blends well with a theory of anarchic organizations which I'm developing. I think a theory on semantics which I want to start experimenting with will also connect. Those will be future posts.

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