I read a great article in the New York Times today.  It is called For Fish in Coral Reefs, It’s Useful to Be Smart.  See

It seems that fish can be taught!  No kidding. According to the Times:

“To test the ability of fish to learn to discriminate shapes, a research team led by Ulrike E. Siebeck at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, trained damselfish to feed from a feeding tube to which they attached a variety of visual stimuli. The latter included a three-dimensional latex disc, a two-dimensional blue disc painted on a plastic board, or black circles or propeller patterns on white boards. The fish were rewarded with food when they repeatedly tapped the stimulus — not the tube — with their snout or mouth.

The fish rapidly learned this task. The researchers then presented the fish with the original stimulus and one alternative distracting shape — bars versus discs, squares versus discs, or circles versus propellers, and the fish had to nose the shape they had been trained to tap in order to receive a reward. The fish tapped the correct shape about 70 percent of the time in the first trial; this improved to 80 percent and to 90 percent in subsequent trials.

Remarkably, the fish also learned when the food reward was delayed and delivered far from the stimulus. The damselfish exhibited what is called anticipatory behavior, in that they would tap the image and then swim quickly to the other end of their tank in anticipation of their food reward. This response is much like Pavlov’s dogs who learned to anticipate food at the sound of a bell.”

I found this incredible for a couple of reasons.  First, it means I may still be able to actually put additional fish in the aquarium I have on my desk.  See, I have a fish named Fred and Fred is . . . well, he is a cannibal.  He eats everything – snails, crawfish, other fish – I put in the tank with him.  He is not a damselfish, but maybe I can teach him anyway.

The other reason I found this article so interesting is it made me wonder why many employers are treating their employees like fish.  “What?” you say?  How so?  Let me ask you this; do you have a bonus plan?  Does your bonus plan depend on meeting some set of criteria or objectives? You know, do this and get the bonus, don’t and you don’t.  Oh, you can see it now can’t you. It’s all becoming clear.  It’s the end of the year and you sit down with your employees and write objectives.  Then they spend the rest of the year “knocking their noses against a plastic disc” in the hope that they will get the bonus at the end of the year. 

Well, what about all their other job duties.  If they don’t contribute to the bonus, they don’t get knocked with the nose.  We all know this is true and yet we still all continue to use these kinds of plans.  How come?  Because some management theorist 20 years ago told us to?  We need a better reason than that, especially in these trying economic times where every dollar counts.  Here’s what’s even worse:  Almost all the experts that have looked at this sort of reward system agree that it doesn’t really work anyway.  You see, we really are different from the fish.  The fish will live a perfectly content fish life rapping his nose against a plastic dish and getting a fishy treat in return.  Ask your employees to rap their nose long enough, and no bonus will keep them happy.  So why maintain the status quo? 

Let’s try something different.  Let’s get people into their work so they derive some satisfaction from it.  Alina Tegend in the New York Times calls it passion.  Ms. Tegend’s article is written to employees, not employers, but we can take something from it.  She quotes Professor Emeritus Peter Warr of the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield in England who says to be happy in work (or anything) your employees need to have “some sense of empowerment, using and expanding [their] skills, enjoying some variety, having a clear sense of [their] situation and what is required, and doing something [they] believe in, . . .” See

I get it, no one works for nothing, and money is an important part of every job.  But are we letting all the other important part fade into the background.  Seems to me to be profitable today you had better have motivated and involved employees.  Also seems to me you are not going to get them with the same old tired systems.  We have to try something new.  We need involved employees who are committed to our company.  I understand that a lot of people are looking for work and that focus on employee satisfaction has lost some of its luster.  It shouldn’t have. 

So what do you do?  Let’s start here:  Next time you sit down with an employee to talk about the job, or goals or pay or a promotion or almost anything else start with this little phrase.  “What do you think?”  Then listen.

Ok I get it, it’s much easier to put up the plastic disc and forget about it until the end of the year.  But if you’re an HR professional, that’s not what you want to do either is it?