When “Good Girl” Isn’t So Good: What Positive Feedback has in Common with Cars and Guns

A high performing animal is like a high performing employee. They know when they have done well and they know when they have under performed. They really don’t need a supervisor, boss or owner to tell them.  In fact it can be annoying.

At a recent HorseTalk: Lessons in Leadership, one participant was working one-on-one in the round pen with an Arabian mare named Grey Lady. She kept telling Grey Lady, “good girl, good girl”. Her intention was to reward the horse, perhaps build a bond.

The problem is that #1 Grey Lady was not doing what she was asked, and #2 the continual flow of “good girl, good girl” made it very difficult for the horse to distinguish a command from the verbal diarrhea.

Performers need positive feedback; they do a great job and they should have that acknowledged. However, phrases like “great job” or “nice work” or “good girl” are so vague as to be virtually useless. And in some cases, they may even do harm. Even a horse gets dulled by the continual stream of words. Then when you give a command like “whoa” or “canter”, the horse may not even hear the word let alone respond.

The first problem with “good girl, good girl” is that she was not being a good girl. She was to turn and she did not. She was to canter and she did not. The problem is that you have now – with your verbal followed by your vocal and visual-rewarded the horse for incorrect behavior.

The second problem is that you have made it more difficult for the horse to hear and distinguish a command from the flow of gibberish. When the horse does not respond, who will you blame? Probably the horse. Who should you blame? The speaker. I say that not to punish the speaker but rather to empower the speaker . . . you have the power to train your horse or your team members with the correct words, said in the right way, at the right time, from the right place.

Let’s imagine that one of your high performers just did a great job on a report. What made their work great? Well, perhaps they got it done three days ahead of schedule. And maybe they added some extra data that you hadn’t thought to request.

Now, your high performer has just done great and hard work, with extra effort and creativity, and you come along and say “great job.’ There are a few problems with that. First, it sounds like you don’t understand everything the high performer accomplished (i.e., beat the deadline and made a better report). Second, it can sound like you don’t appreciate/recognize everything they accomplished.

And third, the phrase ‘great job’ has little long term value. It doesn’t teach the high performer which of their terrific behaviors you would like to see repeated in the future (beating deadlines and adding extra analyses).

Positive feedback like cars or guns is not good or bad. What is done with positive feedback, cars or guns is what makes it good or bad. Be thoughtful and purposeful when you say “good girl”.


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