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Why Positive Reinforcement Starts at the Top

Posted by Douglas A Wick on Thu, Sep 29, 2011

Where does positive reinforcement need to start in your organization?

First, let’s understand there are four behavioral consequences that change behavior: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment and penalty.  Positive reinforcement is important because it is the only behavioral consequence that creates the highest value for an organization.  Positive reinforcement solves problems quicker, better, and with less stress.  It requires a very skilled application of positive reinforcement.  When utilized correctly managers no longer need to resort to command and control or do it or else style of management.  For important clues on how to deliver positive reinforcement read Positive and Negative Reinforcementdescribe the image. To effectively deliver positive reinforcement, make it personal, contingent, immediate and frequent. 

Another important clue to answer where you need to start: Recognize that you are responsible.  If your people are not producing the results you want you need to realize it’s because you’re reinforcing the wrong things.  In Bringing Out the Best in People, Vic Dungus, of Eastman Chemical Co points out that a company is always perfectly designed to produce what it is producing.  What’s that mean?  It means if you have quality, cost or productivity problems then the behaviors associated with those undesirable outcomes are being reinforced.  It’s a simple hard cold reality of human behavior. 

That’s bad news if you’re not getting the result you want.   It’s good news when you identify behaviors that are producing the poor outcome and arrange consequences, you will stop them.  Identify the behaviors that produce a desirable outcome and arrange consequences that will positively reinforce them, and the problem is solved. 

You may assume the place to start positive reinforcement is at the tactical level of their business. People on the front lines normally need the most reinforcement since they are often overlooked and have frequent contact with the customer or with the quality and quantity of your service and product produced.  I’m not going to suggest to not to start here. However let me emphasize a fundamental principal of the Rockefeller Habits Checklist and Strategic Discipline, “As the executive team goes, so goes the business.” 

If you are in a position of leadership please remember this:  Reinforcement multiplies as it goes through the chain of command.  Those who are reinforced tend to reinforce more.  If people at the top are getting reinforced, they are much more likely to reinforce those who work for them, and so on through the organization. 

Reinforcement needs to start at the top of your organization.  It needs to start with you.  It needs to start with your understanding the power of positive reinforcement to influence and maintain behavior in the people who report to you.  It needs to begin with you increasing the immediacy, frequency, contingency and personal nature of positive reinforcement.

Tough economy means your managers should get tougher?  Is that the right course? Perhaps you already know the answer.  We’ll explore this next blog. 

Topics: employee performance, positive reinforcement, Rockefeller Habits Checklist

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The Strategic Discipline Blog focuses on midsize business owners with a ravenous appetite to improve his or her leadership skills and business results.

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