The Dolphin School


Reward the right behaviour, but do not punish.

Going with my children to play with the dolphins at the Dolphin Bay, located within the Aquaventure theme park next to the Atlantis hotel in Dubai, I thought that we were in for another tourist trap. It turned out to be a useful lesson in leadership. Before entering the big pool to meet the dolphins, we were ushered into a room for an introduction to dolphin training. First I thought this was just a waste of time, since the children were excited to meet real dolphins and did not seem to appre­ciate the prospect of spending 30 minutes in a classroom.

But I soon realized that this was going to be good. What really caught my attention was the dolphin trainers’ approach to leadership. The marine mammal with the playful attitude was trained by reward­ing good behaviour, since it craved positive attention. If the dolphin did something the trainer did not want it to do, it was neglected. But it was never punished. The trainer explained that dolphins are intelligent beings and they do not respond well to punishment. I immediately related this to humans – who are also said to be intelligent creatures – and I realized that punishment does not really work that well for us, either.

Later on, I made a deal with my children to adopt The Dolphin School approach at home. I would never punish them, but bad behav­iour would be ignored. For example, if the four year old was running around the table at dinner screaming while the rest us of us were trying to eat, we would just not notice or comment on it. It would be ignored, but not punished. However, if they did something good, there would be a reward.

The Dolphin School is one of the best leadership philosophies I have ever learned and I also practise it at work. At one point I was talked into punishing two people who had lost a lot of money for the company. I reluctantly complied, but it still feels completely wrong. Punishments create a culture of fear where external forces determine behaviour.

The sad thing is that punishments work, people avoid doing things they know they will be punished for, but it creates the wrong incentives and atmosphere. Instead of reactively not doing the wrong things because they will give you pain, it is better to proactively do the right things that bring satisfaction. A culture of punishments focuses on the negative, a culture of rewards focuses on the positive.

Furthermore, punishments make people afraid and insecure. At home, when the children trust that they will not be punished, they are more likely to tell the truth, which in turn enables a better and more honest relationship between parent and child. And ignoring the four year old who is running around at dinner time will soon bring him back to the table. If your bad behaviour does not get any attention, it’s not that much fun to be bad.

Reward the good, be disappointed with the bad and show it, but never punish. That’s The Dolphin School.