The term positive reinforcement has acquired some complex connotations over the past 30 years. In one sense the advocation and practice of positive reinforcement has ethical implications—it seems to embody humanism. The diligent delivery of duly earned recognition when an employee does something that adds value to an organization’s objectives feels like the right thing to do. The act seems to be an affirmation of the employee’s worth and value.
Organizational leaders are flooded with articles and advisors who proclaim the importance of creating a “Total Rewards,” company culture, and of having a “reward and recognition” strategy in place. Positive reinforcement, rewards, and recognition are given the status of “values,” and subsequently promote a patina of ethics—of goodness and good will to the business entity that supports these practices.
In truth, these “humanistic” practices are market driven business strategies compelled by both the human rights movement and competition for available talent. Employee dignity and respect are frequently embedded in discussions about reward and recognition strategies, but this rhetoric is part of a larger agenda—persuading society that the company is a corporate citizen.
Lest we forget, it was only a few years ago when the accepted management style (and parenting style as well) was to use negative reinforcement—that is, to use subtle threats of punishment to elicit the desired behavior. There was no positive reinforcement—no rewards; we behaved and performed to avoid negative consequences—to avoid punishment. It sounds harsh, but it was a social norm; everyone knew that if you did not perform at work or did not do what you parents told you to do—uh oh!
Irrespective of our personal opinions about the ethics of either positive or negative reinforcement, they both work. Society and human affairs have progressed to their current states primarily through the practice of negative reinforcement— by parents, teachers, coaches, and supervisors. It works, and it works well. A more important fact is that positive reinforcement works better to elicit discretionary effort; it facilitates the highest levels of employee performance.
In a world where technology and knowledge are key corporate assets, employees who are constantly thinking of how to do things better, cheaper, faster— employees, who innovate, create, and invent—provide a competitive edge. Positive reinforcement is a business asset. Like TQM, Six Sigma, and Lean Enterprise it is a tool that can provide tremendous returns when it is applied appropriately. Negative reinforcement is also a business tool; we will always be driven in part by what we are afraid will happen if we don’t perform. The strategic use of positive reinforcement has ethical importance as well; it nullifies the emotional stress of working in a negative environment.
I believe it is a mistake to try and sell leadership on the use of positive reinforcement as a value. Humanism is the corporate value of our era, and a competitive necessity. Positive reinforcement in the hands of a well-trained supervisor is a potent performance tool. He or she can elicit higher levels of performance from high-performers and help average performers improve. They can build positive relationships and thereby influence the retention of valuable talent. In my experience, a supervisor who knows how to use positive reinforcement well will improve their department’s performance by 30% or more.
Corporate leadership understands the concept of positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, because well-intentioned zealots emotionalize its practice it is perceived to be a “soft” skill—a human resource tactic, a Mary Poppins kind of approach. It is trivialized by too many examples presenting supervisors saying “good job,” and “thank you,” to employees for doing pedestrian things. The condescension with which many executives view positive reinforcement is due in part to the over-exuberant presentation of its value as a moral and ethical obligation instead of a business tool. Fun and balloons and joy and laughter and… One can see how analytical, practical, numbers-oriented, pragmatic, driven business leaders might mistake positive reinforcement for an elective process instead of a necessary competitive tool.
I think a different approach is called for. We need a renaissance of an old management strategy—talking to your employees. Showing corporate leaders differential data that demonstrates positive reinforcement’s efficacy often fails to engage their active support. Why? Because leaders are emotionally repelled by the over-glamorization of its practice. And, because its application contradicts the years of self-driven excellence they achieved without it.
But, many leaders will accept the proposition that you cannot effectively coach a team from an office; you cannot effectively supervise employees that way either. Most supervisors believe that their key function is to provide employees with directions and error correction. The model they have for positive reinforcement is one where they deliver some rehearsed statement about how well the employee did something—something that required the supervisor to think and puzzle-on before he or she could come up with it. “Let me see now…what should I reinforce George for…hmmmm?”
If supervisors use the 5 step shaping procedure I presented in a recent blog, they will be able to reframe their roles and relationships with their employees without feeling embarrassed or losing face. When presenting positive reinforcement to leadership—when attempting to sell them on it utility and ROI value, its best to position it as an integral part of the dialog that supervisors and managers need to have with their employees. It is part of an effective supervisory strategy. You have a discussion with an employee–in the process of discussing the technical aspects of the job you discuss their performance. You reference what was done properly, what did not work, and the routine content related to technical matters. A performance dialog.
True supervision is a dialogue, pure and simple. Employees will perform in accord with the nature of that dialog. Collaborative discussions about work—discussions conducted in a manner that promotes the value of each participant irrespective of their role or job title—are fulfilling and productive. Problems and opportunities are identified and addressed; mutual respect is expressed through thoughtful framing of statements and responses.
Leaders will see the advisability of providing all employees with a balanced discussion of their work. The feedback employees receive in a performance dialog is essential to employee improvement. It also fulfills their need to know that others know about their effort level. The rewards and recognition practices of your corporation will augment this solid supervisory practice.