What Training Bears Taught Me About Communication at Work: Part 1

Ok, I realize I have some explaining to do first.

I was a part of an organization in college that did a bunch of work around maintaining various traditions and events for the university. One of those jobs was taking care of the two live bear mascots that lived on campus. They’re North American Black Bears. They’re names are Joy and Lady. They’re sisters. They eat fruit (especially cranberries), nuts, vegetables, and a disappointingly small amount of honey. They’re impressively smart, sometimes friendly, sometimes not so much.

Our training team was small, around ten depending on the year. We spent an inordinate amount of time together accomplishing the daily tasks required for maintaining a small zoo.  For some of us, this weird opportunity to take care of bears was the only common thread in our relationship. Our paths probably would not have crossed otherwise. Some of us got along really well, hung out outside of the organization, and became lifelong friends. Some of us didn’t.

In a way, we were a lot like coworkers.

We tackled difficult tasks. We endured monotony. We made each other laugh. We had power struggles. We had politics. We had a mysteriously allocated budget. We had traditions. We had inside jokes. We had hierarchy. We had subcommittees with “responsibilities.” We even had a semi-cracked glass ceiling. All the makings for a truly emblematic corporate environment.

In the years since, I have come to realize that this experience gave me more than just an interesting story at parties. Rather, it taught me some very important lessons about communication in the workplace.

Over the next three posts, I’ll be sharing six of those lessons. Here are the first two.

Lesson 1. Never Stop Shoveling

You don’t start out training the bear. You start by shoveling.

Yes, shoveling that. And even if you become the head trainer (aka the boss), you should never stop shoveling.

This was a pretty crucial part of our culture. Unlike the corporate world, you can’t get a masters in bear training and parachute in as a junior trainer on management track. Everyone starts in the same place, and through a combination of ability, dedication, and timing, you could become the one calling the shots.

But our best trainers understood the importance of communicating an attitude of service throughout their tenure, which helped develop a key component for effective leadership.


As you can probably surmise, it is in everyone’s best interest to develop trustworthy relationships while interacting with a wild animal. The trainer needs to trust the animal, the animal needs to trust the trainer, the trainer needs to trust his or her back ups, and the back ups need to trust the trainer. If the trust is compromised in any of these relationships, things can go south in a hurry.

One of the most effective ways trainers earned the team’s trust was to consistently and genuinely communicate that their actions had nothing to do with their own self-interest.

For example, when I first joined the team the head trainer  was a big, burly, confident, cowboy boot-wearing dude who honestly looked like the caricature of a bear trainer. No one questioned the legitimacy of his position because he looked the part, and he knew it. He could’ve just phoned in the “service” stuff. But this trainer made a conscious and consistent effort to take his leadership to the next level.

He never stopped shoveling. He never pawned it off on one of the newbies (aka me). He didn’t skip cleaning days. He’d take time to show us how to do things correctly without us asking. He was incredibly funny (an underrated leadership quality in my opinion). He admitted when he messed up. He genuinely did not seek recognition, but was quick to give it to others.

Now, does this mean everyone liked him? No. But that should never be the main goal of effective leadership. When we were in the middle of a training session, everyone had complete trust that he would make the right decision for the team if things became tense. We felt safe because our leader had communicated through words and actions that he cared more about us than himself.

Executive coach John Dame lists four keys for building trustworthy leadership: Selflessness, Safety, Service, and Sacrifice. The best trainers took these keys seriously, and the way they communicated them wasn’t through posters on a wall or words in a manual or a section on a website. They made it personal.

Perhaps the most encouraging part about taking a servant leadership approach is that you don’t have to wait to be a leader to start practicing. In fact, it’s probably too late if you wait until that big promotion. When I get lost in all the hullabaloo of work and shift my focus to communicating service, it’s a refreshing win for everyone. I get to take the focus off myself and trying to get my agenda accomplished while other people get sincere help and attention.

Carol Walker, president of the management consulting firm Prepare to Lead, puts it this way, “When you have a servant mentality, it’s not about you. Removing self-interest and personal glory from your motivation on the job is the single most important thing you can do to inspire trust.”

Never stop shoveling. Make communication personal. Lead by serving. Watch the trust build.

Lesson 2. Teaching a Bear to Smile

“Smile” is a generous term. It was basically the bear showing us its teeth so we could make sure everything looked healthy, but that can be a hard concept to convey to a bear. So we stuck with smile.

If you’ve ever tried to train a pet, you know the process isn’t always linear. They do it right one time, but have no idea why. They do it a few times, then completely regress to where they started. They seem like they get it, then out of nowhere refuse to do what you want all over again. It’s a process.

Along the way, you might try various methods to influence the animal’s behavior (e.g. treats, hugs, disappointed tones, withholding toys, etc.). While it may take a combination of tactics to get the result you want, all methods fall into two basic categories, positive reinforcement (reward) and negative reinforcement (punishment/discipline). Basic Psych 101 stuff.

Trying to get a bear to show you its mouth while also retaining all of your body parts is a tricky task, and while your options may still broadly fall into these two categories, there can still be some overlap. Here’s how the rubric usually broke down for us:

  • Good Behavior = Reward

  • Bad Behavior = Correction

  • Harmful Behavior = Discipline

While helpful for training bears, I believe this communication strategy is also useful for influencing human behavior. The challenge is that human behavior can be much more difficult to decode. The opportunity is that reinforcement tactics are not limited to cranberries.


We often make the mistake of thinking work “rewards” are limited to money and/or status, when in fact there are a diverse array of options that can be much more poignant.

One example is the five languages of appreciation in the workplace.

Dr. Gary Chapman and Dr. Paul White outline a useful approach for building trust-filled, empathetic relationships at work using five communication techniques. They include Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Giving Gifts, and Physical Touch (high fives, fist bumps, shoulder pats). By learning how to implement these approaches and identifying which languages(s) coworkers resonate with, we can more consistently and accurately inspire positive behavior without spending a cent.

Correction vs. Discipline

As the modern workplace becomes increasingly vigilant about weeding out inappropriate behavior, understanding correction and discipline has never been as prescient. When the bears messed up a training exercise, the team had to make a few quick decisions. Was there a misunderstanding? Is our safety at risk? What’s the appropriate response? Most importantly, the head trainer had to first ask, Did I do something wrong to cause this behavior? (Keep this in mind for Lesson 5.)

Often times we fall prey to what psychologists refer to as the fundamental attribution error. Basically, if something good happens to us, we think it was because we did something to deserve it. But if something bad happens, we think it’s because of something out of our control. Before deciding to use corrective or disciplinary action, seriously reflect on any communication you may have used that could have been misinterpreted or confusing. You might be surprised how this exercise can solve a number of issues right off the bat.

If you determine you are not the responsible party, the next step on the decision tree is whether the behavior is harmful to others. An employee missed a deadline? Not ideal, but not harmful. Typo on a report? Forgot a meeting? Underperformed expectations? These behaviors most often require correction with words. However, inappropriate behavior, illegal activity, and unethical decisions can compromise the safety of other coworkers or the organization as a whole. These must be met with discipline.

When the bears performed the wrong behavior, didn’t respond to a command, or just had an off day, the trainers shifted to a more serious and intentional tone, conveying that this was serious business and they needed to pay attention. If the trainer ever felt the bear’s behavior was unsafe, we had procedures for ending the training session short or, if worse came to worst, defending ourselves from attack.

Influencing behavior is hard, and it can be tempting to settle for inaction, passive aggression, or force. The best leaders, and trainers, understand the myriad of options in between. Analyze your own communication first.

Part 2 Sneak Peak

When bears attack, and how pressure can be a great team builder. Stay tuned!