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What Can You Learn From a Meerkat

Have you ever tried to eat a live scorpion?

I hope not. But if you ever want to try, get a meerkat to train you.  Adult meerkats have to teach their young pups how to dismantle a live venomous scorpion and then eat it.

They’re a great model for great training and coaching, because the adult meerkats break a complex, potentially life-threatening process into manageable steps.

My business partner, Elizabeth, who refers to herself as a behavioral nerd, discovered what we now call the Meerkat Model doing research for our coaching courses on LinkedIn Learning.

Whenever we encounter a manager having trouble getting an employee to improve, we implement the The Meerkat Model.

Meerkats eat scorpions, which is no easy feat.  A live scorpion is very dangerous. What’s interesting is how meerkat parents teach their pups to eat one.  In a 2006 study, Alex Thornton and Katherine McAuliffe of Cambridge University observed that adult meerkats bring their youngest pups dead scorpions with no stinger, to eat.  The dead scorpions get the pups used to eating scorpion.  Next the adults bring the pups dead scorpions with their stinger in.  The meerkat pups learn how to take out the stinger.  Then the pups are ready to get an injured scorpion, which is a little easier to manage.  Finally they graduate to a live scorpion with the stinger.

The meerktats are a great example of tiered coaching.  If meerkat parents demonstrated the whole process at once to the pups, it wouldn’t work, no matter how many times they showed them.  It’s too difficult to tackle all at once.

Tiered coaching is the secret to teaching complex skills.

For example, imagine you’re trying to teach someone sales skills.  You can spend days going over every aspect of the sales process.  How to open a call, which questions to ask, how to handle obstacles, etc.  It might be second nature to a seasoned person, but it’s likely overwhelming to someone new in a role.

Instead, it’s better to tackle, call openings first.  Let the person get good at it.  They do the opening, you do the rest.  Then work on questions, then the next phase.

As part of her master’s degree work in coaching, my colleague Elizabeth observed a common cause of performance failures.  “Leaders had trouble breaking down concepts, they try to teach it all at once.  Then people who are learning get no positive reinforcement.  They don’t have the energy to slug it out.  If you had a big win every 90 days, you’d be much more effective,” she says.

Just like the meerkat teenager who succeeds at getting the stinger out of the dead scorpion, the student gets dopamine hit every time they succeed.  This increases accountability and confidence,

The Meerkat Model, tiered coaching, seems like more work, because you, as the leader have to break things down.  But it winds up being less work, because people learn more quickly.  Once the student has mastered something there’s no sliding back.  The mastered skill becomes the new ground floor, and you move up.

Tossing your team a live screaming scorpion can be fatal.  Teach them how to dismantle an easy injured one first.  They’ll thank you.

  • Rick White

    Great article!