The Art of Teaching People to Recognize Their Best

When I was in college, I worked in a food distribution warehouse loading trucks. It was backbreaking work. We would load five trailers per day—each load weighing about 25,000 pounds!

We loaded the trailers by extending a conveyor belt all the way into the trailer, and placing each piece onto the floor by hand; stacking piece-upon-piece like oddly shaped bricks in a wall. Each one was a different shape, size, and weight and the heavier items were put on the bottom so as not to crush the lighter items. Each piece had a stop number and all the pieces needed to be stacked such that stop numbers were clearly visible, so the delivery driver could easily identify the orders for each respective stop on his/her route. Most importantly, everything had to be packed together tightly so that it would “ride.”

I did not know it at first, but when loaders or shippers say that something needs to “ride,” they mean that it has to stay tightly packed together, level, and without damaging other items. Each load could have 1000 or more pieces. The pieces come down the conveyor belt at 1-2 seconds per piece, making the job extremely challenging. In fact, it was grueling work to say the least.

When I first started, my supervisor, Mike, would come and check on me at the end of each load. He would cautiously look over my completed load as I was finishing and declare, “That’ll ride,” and ceremoniously close the door to the trailer.

At first, I had no idea what this statement meant, “That’ll ride.” I thought to myself, “Well of course it will ride! It’s in a big trailer!”

I later came to understand that what they were really saying was, “You packed that trailer well.” Further still, I came to understand that “packing a trailer well,” meant: It was level, packages were evenly distributed, stops were facing out, and the weight was balanced appropriately.

Occasionally, one of my coworkers would walk by as I was finishing and they would say, “That’ll ride.” Over time, I learned to take great pride in these moments, because there was no higher praise from my coworkers than to have them admire my work.

Each of my coworkers in that warehouse might never have come to know what good looked like in their work if not for the occasional, “That’ll ride” from Mike or others. Subsequently, I may never have come to learn that either without their brief but impactful sizing-up of my work.

Later in my career as a coach and a consultant, I began to appreciate the power of what my supervisor did years ago by simply dropping the occasional “That’ll ride.” By doing that frequently, it taught me that they noticed and appreciated my work and it had also taught everyone on my crew to pay attention to and reinforce one anothers’ best efforts. Perhaps most importantly, my supervisor taught me how to take a step back at the end of each backbreaking load and say to myself, “That’ll ride.” The power of self-reinforcement for a job well done helped to sustain me through several difficult loads and long summer days, when someone else couldn’t be there to notice or comment.

What I know now is, that may be one of the most important experiences I could have had. In a nutshell, it is the art of recognizing one’s best!

  1. Recognize my own best efforts;
  2. clearly identify the steps needed for a job well done;
  3. think through how I had done it;
  4. repeat these steps on future loads;
  5. and perhaps most importantly, wander past the next loader down the line as they are finishing up and say, “That’ll ride!”

One of the differences between leaders who get the minimum from their people and those who consistently get performance above-and-beyond, is that the latter are able to help performers connect with multiple sources of consequences. Sometimes those sources are peers—much like my fellow loaders walking by my completed load and saying, “That’ll ride.” More often than not, that other source of positive consequences comes from ourselves, which can be a Positive-Immediate-Certain consequence that doesn’t require the boss to be around.

Mike’s habit of frequently coming by my trailer and saying, “That’ll ride” enabled both peer- and self-consequences to fill in for those times he could not be there to reinforce our work.

It was a simple tactic on his part, and it had a huge, positive effect on my behavior.

Posted by Tim Nolan, Ph.D.

Tim Nolan is a trusted advisor to business and organizational leaders, partnering with his clients to achieve the outcomes they seek for themselves and for their businesses.