Praise as behavior modification

So, I’ve figured out a way to “train” someone without directly training them. There is this lady at work who doesn’t talk to anybody. Generally, she only talks if she has something to complain about. She is kind of intimidating in her silence. But sometimes I need to say something to her because how she is doing her job gets in the way of how I need to do my job.

If I want this non-communicative coworker to do something differently, I wait until she is doing something close to it and praise her for it. This is how you train dogs and preverbal children, after all.

Sounds a bit manipulative and indirect, I know. I still get what I want, and nobody’s feelings are hurt. In fact, she feels better because I just praised her.

She is a little hard to interact with. And when I say a little hard, I mean impossible. There might be some shyness, or curmudgeon, or stubborn, or self-conscious in there. She is very old. She rarely talks. She stutters when she does talk. She has never been married. She does not interact with others unless they too are very old and female. This is difficult, because there is only one other person there who meets that criteria right now. This job is a physically demanding one, and very old people just don’t stay.

Her normal interaction with people is to only speak when she thinks something is wrong. She always leads with “I don’t mean to complain, but…” and then she complains. We never hear from her otherwise. Then when we make whatever modification to make her happy, she still isn’t happy. We can’t win. She doesn’t even talk when greeted in the morning. A “Good Morning!” is met with averted eyes.

This is all a bit off-putting, and doesn’t lead to healthy interactions.

So, when she is doing something that gets in my way, something that I “don’t mean to complain” about, I don’t want to do it like she is doing it. I don’t want to add to the awkwardness. I’d rather do things in a nice way. The trouble was in figuring that out. How do I tell someone in a nice way that how they are doing their job makes my job harder? How do I do it when I can’t even say “Good morning!” to them and get a response?

I found my answer in dog and child training books. Both of these areas “train” by celebrating the positive. In both, you can’t tell the subject what to do, because the dog or the child isn’t able to understand words. But they are able to understand praise. So when they do something that you want them to do, praise them. When they do something you don’t want them to do, ignore them. Not punish, just ignore. Beings tend to seek praise, so they will repeat those behaviors that got them praise.

There is a huge area for making carts, but she doesn’t use it very much. She’ll take what she wants to work on to the bookshelves right behind the circulation desk. That area is where we pre-sort all the AV materials. It isn’t great that she is there because she is in the way. I haven’t figured out how to get her to not be there at all without causing a row. Sometimes you have to pick your battles.

But she has started to move her cart further and further into the little alcove where I go into the back room. That is a very narrow area and I need to be there a lot because that is where we sort books to go to other branches. This is a real problem. I want to be able to walk through here easily. I don’t want to have to shimmy or squirm or sidle through here.

I fumed about this for a long time. Then I learned about this technique. So I waited until she had her cart a bit less in my walking area, and I praised her for it. I commented on how it helped me if this area was clear.

And she started doing it all the time. She started taking her cart further back into that area, so she was even further out of my way.

Ideally, she’d not be there at all unless she was working on AV materials, but I’ll count my win.