What I learned from herding cats



I was doing professional development as I was required to do for my job as a trainer and assessor for business qualifications. When I said I was organising a meetup group for Entrepreneurs so other trainers could meet Small Business owners in Brisbane, a (now) friend of mine said the first time we met “that sounds like you’re herding cats”.

When I started going around to Meetups, more than 5 years ago now, my response to the question “what do you do” would often be met with a smile, wondering what the hell was I doing there.

It set the tone for further conversations, and if you are going to ask people for feedback you need to develop a sense of humour. Thing is, most people are too polite to tell you what they actually think. Networkers know this as “Ruinous empathy”

Do a quick Google search and this means caring personally but not challenging directly. Despite your best efforts to be kind, your lack of direct honesty causes problems and ultimately breaks the trust you’ve been trying to build. This is the type of feedback you usually get from friends and family when you are starting a business, and is also know in the startup community as “hugs from Mum”. Feels good, but not always the best advice for you.

Radical Candor

What Startups need as feedback is Radical Candor, a concept coined by Kim Scott. It can help you love your work and the people you work with. Radical candour is the act of giving direct feedback to someone in a way that pushes them to grow and improve. It requires two things:

  1. Being specific and sincere when giving praise
  2. Being clear and kind when giving criticism

Using humour is a good way of being kind when giving criticism. But if you don’t have a good relationship with people and they feel comfortable giving radical candour, even dad jokes become funny. You can take yourself too seriously and have to respect the opinions of others if you want them to respect you.

Radical candour can be seen as rude. But if people have a “growth mindset” they don’t see it as punishment, but rather reward for putting in the effort.

As for acceptance of failure as a learning experience, in conditioning terms, this is known as positive reinforcement, so not a bad thing.

Looking to try and explain this phenomenon and why it works in Startup High Intensity Training workshop – Help overcome Trouble (HOT-SHIT), it led me to research done by Carol Dweck. Process vs person praise, which we will get back to this later.

But first, the burning question from the title of the article…

How do you herd cats?

Simple. That depends on where you put their food.

The metaphor is meant to indicate an almost impossible task with little chance of success. In reality, this is essentially what you have to do when running a successful business. Both when putting on employees, and meeting customer needs.

It not impossible, and has always been difficult. Some would agrue that it is even more difficult to do these days. In the age of social media, due to the number of opinions you have to sift through in an online society, instant gratification is a form of person praise. It makes you feel good, but doesn’t put food on the table.

Person praise has be shown to lead to anti-social behaviour, even in cats. If the goal is to be the best, it becomes a competition you are trying to win. But what do you win? Simon Sinek would say all you win is a big target on your back.

While in the big cat world, the “Lion’s share” is taken by the head of the pride that usually makes the kill. This is not the leader of the pride, it is the manager. Who is not going to teach you how to do their job because you then become a threat to them. Sound familiar yet?

This makes cats vulnerable to abuse from the pride manager. Good work is punished by not giving them the praise they seek. Or, managers give attention by highlighting what could be done better, which is focusing on the negitives.

Do you still think we are talking about cats?

You can make anyone look good, but feeling good is another story. People feel good making money, and if you get it for doing what you love its a bonus, that’s how you herd cats.

If you love what you do, you will still do it if you don’t get paid. That is more about classical conditioning.

We did this with one of our cats too. Sugarbowl has learned that when he taps his kibble bowl sides it makes a dinging noise. Similar to ringing the dinner bell with Pavlov’s dogs. Sometimes he does get wet food when he rings the bell. But it is up for debate in our house as to who is training who.

How to create a growth mindset

It turns out that the way adults praise children’s successes and failures has a direct impact on the mind-set children develop. Dweck and her colleagues have conducted a series of fascinating experiments in recent years and found the following: 

Praising for Intelligence

Many educators and parents believe that commending children for being smart will increase their self-confidence and help them enjoy learning. Not true! “Praising students’ intelligence gives them a short burst of pride,” says Dweck, “followed by a long string of negative consequences.” 

This kind of praise pushes the child into the innate intelligence mindset, which makes them more fearful of messing up. Less willing to work hard to learn new skills, less adventurous with difficult challenges. More prone to cheat or give up, and less confident in their ability to be successful. “Praising students for their intelligence, then, hands them not motivation and resilience but a fixed mind-set with all its vulnerability,” concludes Dweck. 

Praising for effort

By contrast, commending people for the processes they use – engagement, perseverance, strategies, improvement – fosters motivation, increased effort, willingness to take on new challenges, greater self-confidence, and a higher level of success. “Process praise keeps students focused. Not on something called ability that they may or may not have and that magically creates success or failure. On processes they can all engage in to learn,” writes Dweck. 

Here’s what this kind of adult praise sounds like: 

  • “You really studied for your test, and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, outlined it, and tested yourself on it. That really worked!” and 
  • “It was a long, hard assignment, but you stuck to it and got it done. You stayed at your desk, kept up your concentration, and kept working. That’s great!” 

What about someone who works hard and does poorly? Dweck suggests saying, 

  • “I liked the effort you put in. Let’s work together some more and figure out what you don’t understand.” 

How about a student who gets an A without trying very hard? Dweck suggests saying, 

  • “All right, that was too easy for you. Let’s do something more challenging that you can learn from.”

Adolescents often see school as a place where they perform for teachers who then judge them, concludes Dweck. “The growth mind-set changes that perspective and makes school a place where students vigorously engage in learning for their own benefit. 

Her research shows that educators cannot hand students confidence on a silver platter by praising their intelligence. Instead, we can help them gain the tools they need to maintain their confidence in learning. By keeping them focused on the process of achievement.

But if you just want to look good, we can still do that. Even if you don’t love cats.

I still miss Teapot. R.I.P.