Motivating Cats…and Employees

I have three cats. Okay, don’t stop reading. I’m actually a dog person. But I’m not going to agree that all cats should end up as oven mitts, even though that does provide a rather practical answer to the question, “What’s a cat good for, anyway?”

Back to my story.

The Evil One

Each day at the same time, I shake a jar of  fish-scented kibble. The cats hear the sound, and they come running. Classical conditioning. Remember, I’m a dog person. I have dog expectations for these cats. I won’t just “GIVE” them a treat. They have to earn it. Specifically, I expect that they will take the cookie from my fingers and eat it. Nothing fancy like a handshake or (yuck) a kiss.

When I started this little exercise, I didn’t get the results I hoped for. The Evil One would get so excited, he would bite my fingers up to the second knuckle to make sure he got all of the flavor available. Baby would swipe my whole arm with her razors to knock the treat out of my hand. And Ookie would open his mouth, lick the treat, and then stare at it. Since none of the cats met up to my expectations, none of them got what they wanted. And I withheld their rewards.

Ookie and Baby

This went on for months. Eventually, the Evil One learned to “take it nice” and earned the treat. He gently took the kibble from my hand and ate it. Baby continued to attack my hand. She got nothing. Ookie got it right about half of the time, so he got rewarded half of the time.

After about six months, the Evil One perfected my expectations. Ookie had taken to this new practice like a Teamster takes to kickbacks, giving me about 90% perfection. And Baby had progressed to the point where she no longer scratched me. But that’s where her learning stopped.

I asked the cats to complete one simple task: take the treat nicely. I provided the same reinforcement each time. And as an added bonus, I would scratch and pet them whenever they got it right. So why didn’t they get it right 100% of the time?


Ever have this issue with your employees? You clarify your expectations and offer them a reward (like a paycheck). You give them all the same opportunity to earn that reward. All they need to do is to give you what you’re looking for, and still you can’t get them to come along. Sound familiar?

Maybe the reward you’re offering isn’t enough for the work you expect. Or it could be that while they know what you expect, they don’t have the knowledge or skills to give you what you want. Or perhaps some of them take to your management style while others are put off by your approach. And then again, the issue might be with your employees.

Give all of your employees the opportunities to learn and grow. Clarify your expectations. Practice alongside of them until they show you that they can do what’s expected. Offer coaching and positive reinforcement along the way, acknowledging their progress towards mastery.

For those that “get it” while demonstrating that they not only can do but also want to do what you expect, give them more responsibility. These are your “go to” employees. An investment in them will pay off big.

For those who nearly always deliver, look for barriers that might keep them from giving you more of what you need. Offer plenty of reinforcement while they work towards mastery. Fluency takes time, so reinforce each effort they make in the right direction.

And for those who don’t get it, you might need a new strategy. If they can’t do the job, consider retraining or one-on-one support. Once they show you that they can do it, expect it. And if they stop delivering, you know it’s not about a lack of knowledge or skill. If an employee won’t do the job, it’s a lack of desire. Put the ball in their court. Ask them if they get it. Show them where they’ve done it in the past. Clarify your expectations based on the typical performance of his/her peers. And if they still don’t perform, cut your losses. And cut the employee.


So how are cats like employees? Both have the ability to learn new things and perform to your expectations…although cats have a stronger stubborn gene and are more prone to scratching or biting than most employees. Both need clear expectations and the promise of a reward for their efforts. Both need to see the connection between their efforts and their rewards.

However, from a Legal and Human Resource perspective, I strongly suggest that you save the petting part of your positive reinforcement for your cats, and keep your hands off your employees. But that’s just me…

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