Book Review: Ken Blanchard, Whale Done: The Power of Positive Relationships (2002).

Ken Blanchard’s book Whale Done is one of his “parables” about management success based on lessons learned by a disgruntled manager who learns a new method of motivated people from an unlikely source.  The lead character in Whale Done learns from the trainers at the Sea World show in Orlando.  Specifically, how is it that the trainers get the whales to perform the way they do?

The fundamental lesson of Whale Done is the insight that we can get better results from the people we manage if we “accentuate the positive” by drawing our colleagues’ attention to the things they do well.  The authors point out that the more attention we draw to a behavior, the more likely it is that the behavior will be repeated – thus, if we are constantly playing “gotcha” with employees who make mistakes, we’re actually heightening their attention to the wrong results.  Instead, the authors suggest that we constantly encourage employees when they do something right, as a means of giving them motivation to do it right again in the future.

Indeed, the authors break down potential responses to an employee behavior in four ways, based on whether the employee has done something wrong or right.

If the employee does something RIGHT, there are two potential responses:

1.  No response

This is what we generally do when employees do something right – nothing.  We ignore it, since, after all, people are supposed to do things rights.

2.  Positive response

This is what we SHOULD do when employees do something right – give them positive reinforcement, thus giving them an incentive to do it right again in the future.

This is what Blanchard calls the “WHALE DONE” response:

  • first, praise people immediately
  • second, be specific about what they did right
  • third, share your positive feelings about what they did
  • fourth, encourage them to keep up the good work

The ultimate goal of the positive response is to help people become self-motivating, where they associate good feelings with doing their jobs correctly.

Conversely, if the employee does something WRONG, there are two potential responses:

1.  Negative response

This is what we generally do when employees do something wrong – give them negative feedback in the hope that they’ll avoid the mistakes in the future.  The authors believe that this is counter-productive, because it unnecessarily draws the employee’s attention to the mistake.  This is what the authors call the “GOTCHA” response, and is unhelpful.

2.  Redirection

This is the strategy that the authors encourage when an employee makes an error – re-direct the agent’s attention  either back to what they were supposed to do, or to an alternative task.  The idea is that you want to focus attention on the task yet to be performed correctly, rather than harping on the mistakes already made.  Ultimately, it’s more effective than a negative response, which undermines confidence.

Redirection is accomplished as follows:

  • first, describe the error as soon as possible, clearly and without blame
  • second, show it’s negative impact
  • third, if appropriate, take the blame for not making the task clear
  • fourth, go over the task in detail, making sure it’s understood
  • fifth, re-express you confidence and trust in the person

The intention of Redirection is to set up a positive response in the future, such that employees learn, like the whales, to repeat the good behaviors.


For the most part, I’ve always loved Blanchard’s lessons, even while I find his parables a little difficult to read.  Although it has more application for real estate managers than agents, the foundational idea that we can all do a better job of promoting good behaviors by praising good decisions rather than harping on errors is a good lesson to learn.  Anyone who has trained a dog, for example, has heard the same lesson from modern pet training techniques: praise the good behavior, ignore the bad behavior.  A reinforcement of that lesson is worth hearing, although I generally don’t think that Whale Done is so persuasive on the topic.  Not a must-read, but not a bad book.