Group A instructors will typically rely a lot on getting you to observe them for a long period of time. They will then ask you to do something that you have seen them doing and will carefully observe you doing so. Some instructors will instead rely on a complete explanation of what you have to do to get the task done, whilst others will rely on a combination of the two. After that they will point out what you have done wrong so that you can correct it the next time you have to do the task. These instructors seem to have no problem telling you what you did wrong.
Group B instructors will let you observe, and then they will give you a simple version of the task and explain it in baby steps. Sometimes they will do the task with you at the same time so that you can easily succeed. They will then build up from there and add small components to the task until you are able to perform the entire task. These instructors do not correct your mistakes. They ignore them and focus instead on what you did well. If they really have to point out a mistake they are very careful about how they do it and mask it within things that you did well.
I encounter instructors from Group A much more often than from Group B. I was once given the opportunity to evaluate a younger colleague doing something that was new to him but that I was already comfortable doing. I used a full blown Group A approach to do it. I pointed out many mistakes that should be fixed and I told him every single one them. Upon seeing his reaction I instantly started to feel bad about what I was doing. Within the next hours and even days I continued to feel bad about it. From that moment on I have always tried to use a Group B approach and to focus more on what goes well instead of on what goes wrong.
When I am being coached on a task, if I get an instructor from group A that is pointing out my mistakes I usually feel offended and on my next try at the task I will be afraid of doing it, merely trying to avoid mistakes. I am typically a happy guy and I like to be creative and funny about everything I do. If I am being coached by a Group A instructor all of that goes away and I will merely try to avoid mistakes. Sometimes I might even shut down and freeze. Overall, my relationship with this person starts to be a less pleasant one.
Let’s look at it from the operant conditioning point of view. If I am pointing out mistakes to a colleague I am using an aversive (assuming that he does not like it). If he is doing a task and trying to avoid making mistakes to get the job done some behaviors will be under negative reinforcement control. Isn’t this the stuff that we so passionately try to avoid when teaching animals? Sure, if I tell him what he did wrong there is a good chance of it being fixed the next time he does it, as we have a tendency to love quick fixes, but is that really the best approach?
Let’s look at it from the emotional point of view. What is a good relationship with another person? In my opinion, it is one in which the amount of pleasant interactions clearly outweighs the unpleasant ones. I like to use the bank account analogy in this case: if you want to have a healthy bank account you need to make way more deposits (pleasant interactions) than withdrawals (unpleasant interactions). If you make too many withdrawals you may go broke (seriously damage the relationship). If I am mostly pointing out mistakes I may be poisoning my relationship with that person.
Let’s look at it from the performance side of things. If I correct a person today, perhaps she will be doing the task correctly tomorrow, but she will also be trying to avoid mistakes. That makes it very likely that her performance will have a limit. If on the other hand I use praise and rewards, the person will actively hunt for additional praise and go beyond what is asked, sometimes discovering extremely helpful variations of the task at hand.
Here is a real life example: imagine that you are trying to learn how to cook properly and you just met Peter, a well experience chef. You invite him over to your house to try your dishes for a few days, as a way to improve your skills. Peter arrives at your house and you serve him your food. He tries it and with a disapproving and disappointed look says “This has too much salt and the food is undercooked. I would have chosen a different combination of ingredients. Not an impressive dish to be honest.” How would you feel about Peter’s approach? Even though he is being honest and genuinely trying to help you, my guess is that you would feel demotivated, perhaps offended and not looking forward to Peter’s next visit. You might even not want to try to prepare that dish ever again.
Now, imagine that instead of Peter, you met John. John is also a well experienced chef and when he comes and tries your dish he smiles approvingly and says “This is really good, especially considering how little experience you have. I like the detail that you put into the preparation of this dish and I am so glad you invited me over. Perhaps I could suggest that you use a tiny little bit less salt so that we can taste the flavor of these amazing ingredients even more.” John also notices that the food is slightly undercooked but he prefers not mention that. He then says: “Why don’t I show up earlier next time and help you with the cooking? It will be fun!” How would you feel about this interaction? I would be extremely motivated and looking forward to the next cooking session. I would probably even take an extra step to learn as much as possible about that dish in particular so that I could make it better.
I have met many animal trainers that use approach B brilliantly on animals, but then use approach A with their colleagues. I wonder why that happens. Does it come more natural to us to focus on mistakes? Does it have to do with the way we were raised in a culture that tends to focus a lot on what is done wrong instead of on what is done right? I wonder… I do know one thing: the ones that use approach B on animals and approach B on colleagues are the ones that I hold dearest in my heart. They are also the ones that I love to spend time with and to learn from.
Probably, most of us don’t even realize that we are using approach A as our default way of dealing with people. I am not suggesting that we do it because we want to be mean to other people. Perhaps we have a tendency to repeat the approach that was used on us and it ends up becoming a habit. Many animal trainers progressed from approach A to approach B when applied to animals and ended up becoming international references in the field of positive reinforcement training. I have met many people that started to implement the same changes when it relates to people, and even though there will be an adaptation period, the rewards will be worth the change.
How about each of you reading this text tries to use approach B for 48 hours with every human you encounter throughout the day and then report back to me on what happened during those 48 hours, so that you can show how this approach will benefit not only your work, but also your relationship or friendship. I would bet that you are going to have a happier day. I look forward to hearing back from you!