The Power Of Postive Reinforcement

Joe Love

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Did you ever wonder why you have so much trouble getting consistently high performance from people? Who hasn’t?

Getting top performance and gaining a world-beating organization in the process is possible, but it takes a lot more than “common sense” management or the latest fad management practice. That’s because most managers and most methods of management fail to take into account one important thing: People aren’t merely a component in the complicated business machine, they are the very engine of it! If you don’t know how to harness the power of people, no management method will deliver good results.

The behavior your employees display at work is the behavior you and your organization reinforce. Your organization’s success, it’s quality, productivity, and its profits depends on what your employees do and what they do depends on their behavior. If you want to improve your organization, you must ask your people to adjust their behavior. In the simplest terms: they must do more, or less, or something different than what they’re doing now. To motivate employees today, management must use techniques that maintain or modify behavior.

Managers who don’t understand how to manage employee behavior consciously and correctly, are managing for failure. In other words, they’re probably decreasing some positive, desirable behaviors, and increasing some negative, undesirable ones.

Behavior is a function of its consequences. There are two behavioral consequences that increase behavior: Positive reinforcement causes people to repeat a certain behavior because they had a pleasant result. For example, you buy lunch for an employee after he or she submits an excellent report. That employee then continues to work hard.

Negative reinforcement causes employees to repeat a behavior to escape an unpleasant result. For example, an employee will stay late to polish up a report because he or she knows there will be negative consequences if there are any mistakes.

There’s a big difference between the two. Positive reinforcement makes people work harder than before. But those who get negative reinforcement do only what is necessary to escape punishment.

There are two consequences that decrease behavior: Punishment provides something people don’t want. Extinction occurs when someone does something and nothing happens. Every manager needs to understand extinction, because it goes on all the time. If your people do good work and you say nothing, you’re decreasing the chances that it will happen again.

Negative reinforcement gets you minimum performance. It may be worthwhile, however, to start people on the road toward better behavior. For example, if an employee isn’t performing up to par, you might say, “Your work is unsatisfactory. If you don’t come up to standards by this time next week, you won’t have a job here. ” If performance improves, however, you must positively reinforce each improvement.

Consequences have a short shelf life. Those that follow right after a behavior are worth more than delayed ones. When it comes to behavior, people tend to seek experiences that provide current rewards rather than experiences that bring uncertain, delayed rewards.

Positive reinforcement is the name of the game when it comes to motivation. But discretionary effort, the “extra” you want people to give is like loose change. They can spend it or save it. Positive reinforcement makes them want to spend it all each day.

Positive reinforcement is any consequence that follows a behavior and increases frequency. Managers create social reinforcement by doing or saying something to another person. For example, you might offer honest praise or something that has special meaning only to that person. You can also create tangible reinforcement by awarding money, time off, or anything that has material value. Tangible reinforcement should always back up social reinforcement, but it’s not a substitute for it.

Both types of reinforcement are highly personal. What appeals to one person may not interest another. You can find out what each person really wants by trying something that might work. For example, you could by lunch for people who finish a job ahead of schedule. Most of the time such gestures motivate because the attempt itself is reinforcing. People like to be appreciated, so choose anything, including praise, that shows you value their efforts.

You can also find out what a person really wants by simply asking them. But, keep in mind that the person might not know what he or she wants, or may even be suspicious of your motives. You’ll also uncover lots of potential reinforcers by watching how people spend their time and by listening to what they talk about at work.

To bring out the best in people, your organizational systems must recognize and reward employees for top performance. Unfortunately, most recognition-and-reward systems acknowledge behavior long after the fact and may even discourage people from giving their best.

Employee of the month programs often neglect to clarify what people have done to get the award. In addition, it doesn’t reinforce performance immediately or frequently, it assumes every employee wants the same recognition, and there’s only one winner. Besides, if the “best” employee really got the award each time, the same few people would win again and again. How meaningful is it? You should create a bigger winners circle by defining what specific behavior is required. That way there can be an unlimited number of winners.

Contests are great for recognizing and rewarding top performance. Because contests often award expensive prizes, some employees will lie, cheat, and even sabotage each other’s performance to win. Contests motivate winners and alienate losers.

A truly motivational contest should: (1) Award small prizes and make bragging rights the main reward. (2) Run for three months of less. Year-long contests put the reward too far from employee’s behavior. Even the best performers will tend to grow weary by the year’s end. (3) Be fun. Giving a few large prizes instead of many small ones takes the fun out for most people. (4) Allow an unlimited number of winners. Everyone who meets the criteria should take home a prize.

A quick note about awarding money as recognition and reward for top performance. Compensation programs don’t usually bring out the best in people. Money is important, no doubt about it. But the way people are treated at work is far more important in getting good performance.

Promoting fun and values in the workplace is a great way to motivate employees. Yes, that’s right. Fun can and should be a by-product of work. You should hold more celebrations. They don’t have to be elaborate functions with speakers, a catered meal, and gifts. All they need to be are opportunities to sit down, relive successes, share the challenges that were overcome to meet some goal, and reminisce about workplace triumphs.

Make your employees active participants in these celebrations, not just recipients of the company’s benevolence. Let them tell their own stories about their on-the-job successes. They’re often the only ones who know the details and groundwork that made possible the victory that’s being applauded. Management should listen and encourage their frontline performers from the sidelines. Ask questions such as, “How did you do that?”, How did you figure it out?”, and “How hard was it?” This gives them an acceptable opportunity to brag and to publicly thank those who helped them.

Your company should give out rewards for top performance, but the rewards should be symbolic, tangible, and they should anchor positive behaviors. Channel attention and enthusiasm toward reliving, discussing, and celebrating the accomplishment. Don’t let the reward steal the show.

You have to be careful when giving rewards, because when it is not done correctly, the cost of the reward can become an issue. For example, an employee who gets a t-shirt with the company’s logo as a reward for a suggestion that saves the company $50,000 is going to feel victimized. This reward’s value is way out of line with the annual savings. If you give tangible rewards, make sure their worth reflects the worth of the achievement.

Performance management reflects the fact that everyone’s work effort proceeds according to the laws that govern human behavior. It recognizes that, with the right reinforcement, everyone’s performance can improve. Applying that knowledge will bring about the behavioral changes you want from your employees. And that’s the best way to meet your company’s goals.

Copyright© 2005 by Joe Love and JLM & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide.

Joe Love draws on his 25 years of experience helping both individuals and companies build their businesses, increase profits, and achieve total success. He is the founder and CEO of JLM & Associates, a consulting and training organization, specializing in personal and business development. Through his seminars and lectures, Joe Love addresses thousands of men and women each year, including the executives and staffs of many of America’s largest corporations, on the subjects of leadership, self-esteem, goals, achievement, and success psychology.

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