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Positive Reinforcement: Grandma’s Rule Gets Me Home Again

Posted by Douglas A Wick on Mon, Sep 24, 2012

Thursday of last week my Doctor used Grandma’s rule for positive reinforcement on me to ensure I was able to go home on Friday.   “As long as you don’t get a fever or have any other complications overnight, we’ll be sending you home tomorrow.” He offered. 

Grandma’s rule is something you might be familiar with from childhood.  Simply put, it’s the suggestion to your children, “If you eat your vegetables you can have desert.” 
Aubrey Daniels in Bringing out the Best in People points out that “eating your vegetables is a low frequency choice for most children.  Eating desert is a high frequency choice.  When a high frequency choice is made contingent on a low frequency choice, children not only eat more vegetables, they may even grow to like them over time."

What does this mean at work?  If you watch your people at work how their spending time when they have a choice, you can identify reinforcers for them.   Let’s say you run a mechanic shop and find that one of your mechanics spends most of his unassigned time repairing electric motors instead of doing something else, you can assume that repairing electric motors is a reinforcer for him.

We’ve discussed this in other blogs before, however the challenge with positive reinforcement in most work environments is that management doesn’t know what positive reinforcement for most of their workers is.  There are three ways to identify positive reinforcement, ask, try and observe. 

Common sense suggests you would simply ask what your workers positive reinforcement would be, but as Daniels points out, common sense is not often common and in most cases common sense is individual, and not something that can be measured to determine what it exactly is. Asking fails for four reasons:

  1. Asking simply fails because most people don’t know what their positive reinforcers are, and if asked would even know what you are talking about.  Often what they believe they would work for and what they would is different.
  2. With the way people are often treated at work, in many cases they will be suspicious of your motives when asked.  If they’ve been managed in the past by negative reinforcement and punishment, they won’t be willing to trust that you would use this information for their benefit.
  3. People tend to hold back due to the economic climate of downsizing and re-organization.  In this case they may tell you what you want to hear rather than risk something that might label them as unambitious or a problem employee.
  4. Finally because managers frequently feel this process of finding positive reinforcement is easy, walking into a meeting and asking what people want can set the wrong expectations.  Your people will believe that whatever they requested will be delivered.  Everything they ask for will not be available, yet when asked and then upon not receiving it they will become frustrated and possible even angry.

 My doctor had a good idea what I wanted was to go home.   He used Grandma’s rule to positively reinforce the outcome I wanted.  Friday when my Physician Assistant announced I would probably not be going home due to the time it would take to get my medications in order, I believe my doctor stepped in to overrule him not only because he felt that was a poor excuse to keep me in the hospital but also because he’d remembered his offer to me the day before.

Through his observation of patients before me certainly he understood what was most motivating for them.

I’m home again, although I’ve had to go back to the hospital Saturday and Sunday for infusions of magnesium to help me stabilize my condition and recover better.  It’s still feels great to be home in my own environment.

What makes your workers excited and willing to work harder?  Do you know?  Start by observing them.  Ask your managers to observe each individual work to determine where and what his reporting employees like to do with their discretionary time at work.  That’s the start to getting a more highly proficient worker inspired to perform through the most effective means of positive reinforcement.

Next blog a look at the three sources of positive reinforcement and why the best workplaces employ one of these methods better than others.  

Topics: Acute Myeloid Luekemia, Bringing Out the Best In People, Aubrey Daniels, positive reinforcement

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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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