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4 Rules of Positive Reinforcement

Posted by Douglas A Wick on Mon, Aug 5, 2013

The behavior of people is the only way anything is accomplished in business.  Organizational accomplishment is dependent on behavior.  Improvements in quality, increases in productivity, or creativity are the result of asking people to change.

Does this sound familiar?  Aubrey Daniels (Bringing Out the Best In People) did an informal study years ago discovering that mangers spend approximately 85% of their time either telling people what to do, figuring out what to tell them to do, or deciding what to do because employees didn’t’ do what they told them to do. As discussed in Bad Performance is Your Responsibility we are receiving exactly the type of performance we are rewarding.

If we don’t know the conditions under which people do their best, we survive only though luck. 

In order to get our people to respond we must understand the why people do what they do which is a function of consequences.   The four behavioral consequences and their effects are shown again in this chart to the right.  However you must also know how to deliver positive reinforcement and the rules that govern its effectiveness if we wish to succeed. 

 Daniels, Aubrey C. and Bailey, Jon S.(2014).  Performance Management: Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness. Atlanta, GA: © 2014 Performance Management Publications.

Positive reinforcement causes a behavior to increase because a desired meaningful consequence follows the behavior.  Positive reinforcement generates more behavior than is minimally required.  This is discretionary effort, its presence is the only way an organization can maximize performance.  Positive reinforcement therefore is what we need to focus on for our business to grow and succeed.

Negative reinforcement: causes behavior to increase in order to escape or avoid some unpleasant consequence.  Negative reinforcement generates enough behavior to escape or avoid punishment.  Improvement is described as “just enough to get by.”

If Performance is not improving, reinforcement is not occurring.

Wonder how this works and why you may have tried positive reinforcement in the past and it didn’t work?  Check out Positive Reinforcement Didn’t Work

Most likely you made a mistake in the selection or delivery of the reinforcement you chose. 

Making behavior work is all about following the rules.  According to Daniels positive reinforcement requires:

Make it personal. People are unique in the things they find reinforcing. Although many people may find the same things to be reinforcing, not everyone will. For example, a large percentage of people at work find money to be highly reinforcing but, believe it or not, some people have all they need or want (and they are not all rich). Therefore, the offer of money as a positive reinforcer for some behavior will not be motivating to such people. Employees often turn down overtime pay because they value their free time more than they value more money.

Make it contingent. To be most effective, positive reinforcers must be earned. There must be a direct link between behavior and the delivery of the rein­forcer. The best test of this is to ask the question, "What did the person have to do to earn the rein­forcer?" The critical word is earn. As you will see, many of the benefits, rewards and even compensation that people receive at work are often not for an accomplishment but for being in the right place at the right time. Benefits are typically rewards for being on the payroll. Raises may be given to every­one on an annual basis. Cost of living adjustments are given across the board. And so it goes.

Make it immediate. While it is difficult for most people to understand, positive reinforcement increases the behavior that is occurring when one gets it. Reinforcement that is delayed is likely to increase the behavior occurring when the positive reinforcer is delivered rather than the behavior that it was intended to reinforce. We learn to be superstitious because a behavior, such as re-pushing the button for the elevator, coincides with the arrival of the ele­vator when there is, in fact, no causal relation between the re-pushing and the speed of arrival. A child, who has earned a reward but receives it only after he starts crying for it, is reinforced for crying, not for what he did to earn it.  (We’ve probably all seen situations where parents reward a child who is having a temper tantrum in a shopping center.  It’s the worst thing a parent can do to prevent that child from acting this way again.) 

Just before starting my business in coaching fulltime I took a position with another consulting company to learn how they generated leads and converted them.  The company, IPA, hired me in a sales position.  While there were many policies and procedures the company had that I didn’t like, they did have an understanding and appreciation of the value and importance of making positive reinforcement immediate.  Our commission for sales depended on the size of the sale. It frequently was 25-50%.  Very often the company would announce on a Wednesday any sale made the rest of the week that booked an appointment for the following week would get the full amount of the sale as commission. The real kicker here was you’d be rewarded with a check the next day.  Full commission stimulated your efforts; however knowing you’ll get the check the next day really boosts motivation. 

Make sure it’s frequent.  How many ‘atta-boys’ does it take to erase one ‘You really screwed up!’  Research as far back as 1974 (Madsen) in training classroom teachers found that those that had a positive reinforcement to punishment ratios of 4:1 or better had good discipline and high achievement in their classrooms. Other research reports levels higher and lower, but the four to one rule is a good ratio to remember and follow. 

Many organizations think about frequency in terms of annual performance appraisals, annual recognition dinners, quarterly bonuses, or employee of the month.  This type of low frequency of reinforcement has little or no impact on company performance.  Often it fails to meet any of the rules listed here let alone frequency.  Positive reinforcement needs to be a daily affair.  

Check your own ratio.  Consider keeping a 3 x 5 card and count all your attempts to reinforce or punish during the day.  If your ratio is less than 4:1 increase your attempts at positive reinforcement.  Remember the frequency at which video games rewards users (The Dawn of Impatience – Increase Positive Reinforcement).

The worst thing that can happen in your organization is when there is little reinforcement being provided.  In this case your employees will compete with each other to receive it.  You may wonder what’s wrong with a little more competition.  Nothing generally, however in this case it produces behavior that is incompatible with the team-oriented work environment most organizations are trying to promote.  Infrequent positive reinforcement promotes “political” behaviors.  Blaming others, covering your rear, and sabotaging the initiatives and good intentions of others are examples of behavior that arises when a company provides too little positive reinforcement.

While we want our employees to be competitive, it should be to compete within your industry, not within the company.  People should not have to fight to receive reinforcement.  Everyone in the company should be eligible to earn reinforcement.  It’s your job as managers and leaders to provide it! 

In Bringing Out the Best In People, Aubrey Daniels states “Leaderships’ role in every organization is not to find fault or place blame, but to analyze why people are behaving as they are, and modify the consequences to promote the behavior they need.”

What’s this look like in your organization? 

Are your leaders and managers analyzing why people behave the way they are and modifying consequences to promote the behavior you desire?  Daniels notes that every organization is getting exactly the performance that they are rewarding.  Vic Dingus at Eastman Chemical offered, “A company is always perfect designed to produce what it is producing.”  Quality, cost, and productivity problems and behavior associated with those undesirable outcomes are being reinforced.  The good news is to get the performance we want we need to identify the behaviors producing the poor outcomes and arrange consequences to stop them.  Then identify the behaviors to produce the desirable outcomes and arrange consequences to positively reinforce them.

Each of these rules can and should be examined more thoroughly, particularly if you expect to get performance increases.  We’ll look at “Making it Personal” next blog.  

Topics: Bringing Out the Best In People, Employee Recognition, employee performance, 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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