Back in May of this year, I attended and participated in the Fortune Scale Up Summit in Atlanta. One of consulting’s greats, Aubrey Daniels spoke in a session about using positive re-enforcement as a feedback device to increase employee engagement and performance.
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.)
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.