Jillian Michaels IS The Biggest Loser

(Note: Feb. 2014) This week's finale of The Biggest Loser illustrates how the show may inadvertently reinforce the wrong behaviors. The desired result is to the lose the most weight but how the contestants reach that goal could be from engaging in unhealthy or unsustainable behaviors. 

The new season of biggest loser has kicked off and I was quickly reminded of the fact that Jillian Michaels is the biggest loser of all. Jillian seemed shocked when one of her protégés, Nikki, walked out on the first show of the new season of The Biggest Loser. I would have walked out much earlier. For transparency’s sake let me reveal two things. One, I have never liked Jillian. Two, I would love to attend one of the Biggest Loser Camps, not for the weight loss but to see how much I can push myself to do and to get started on a routine. That said, I suspect that the reason Jillian is back on the show is not for her trainer skills but for her abusive mouth. If you count the number of camera shots of her yelling at her team members, shots of her team members crying and shots of other team members trying to console the ones abused, you can understand the appeal she has for the show’s producers. While it may be good TV, it is not a good example of how to coach anyone for anything! I cannot say that I was displeased when Nikki left before the end of the first week and when Jillian’s team lost the weigh-in. I think she is a terrible trainer. She seems to justify an abusive coaching style by a “It’s for your own good” philosophy. Oh, I know that some team members say that she is what they needed. I have said something similar about my time in the Army in Korea—I’m glad I had the experience, but I would not wish it on anyone.

The show offers a contrast between two styles of coaching: Jillian, the stereotypical Marine drill sergeant on the one end, Dolvett Quince on the other and Bob Harper somewhere in between but more toward Dolvett’s style. I would love for Dolvett and Bob to use goals to measure progress, paired with lots of social reinforcement so as to make the contrast even clearer and more effective. There are several reasons contestants put up with Jillian at all. One is that they are in the show and to stay you have to lose weight. The second is the negative consequences of quitting. There are other consequences that keep the contestants with Jillian that have nothing to do with Jillian’s methods. Jillian said when Nikki left that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to change (all of a sudden she’s a psychologist). While that is not true, these people have indicated by being on the show that they want to change. Neither of the other coaches had anyone who made any statements about wanting to leave. While some were worried that they might not be above the red line, the criterion for staying another week, they clearly wanted to stay. To criticize the contestants for failure to push themselves seems to me to be ridiculous since, by their weight problem, they have shown that they have been unable to stick to a plan for long. Their desire to be on the show is an indication that they know they need help – not a critic. If Jillian did know anything about the psychology of motivation, she would realize that she could increase the desire to change by reinforcing even the smallest improvement in exercise level, duration and other accomplishments during the workouts.

The beginning level of motivation is not a barrier to ultimate success if you have a trainer who knows about the science of behavior change. Negative reinforcement, avoiding failure and Jillian’s mouth, gets you enough change to avoid those two outcomes but it doesn’t cause contestants to do their best. It doesn’t cause you to spend extra time in the gym or eat less at the dinner table. The shaping approach of the other coaches, recognizing small improvement, is a much more effective approach to change. I certainly hope that any supervisors and managers watching this show don’t get the idea that Jillian’s approach is even close to one that can be successful in today’s workplace. It will never bring out the best in people in any situation and even though it has a certain audience appeal, it is not a model for the effective management of change. I predict that either Jillian gets less abusive and more positive or she loses—not a bad outcome for any who are tempted to copy her methods.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.