Positive Reinforcement – Part 1: Why It Matters

Along the lines of the adage that suggests “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” positive reinforcement tends to get better results than negative feedback or punishment. “Reinforcing” positive behavior by offering a verbal or material token encourages that behavior to continue.

Behavioral scientists define positive reinforcement (PR+) as “any consequence that causes a behavior to repeat or increase in frequency.” It’s a reward for a job well done; one that motivates the doer to put in the effort to achieve the same results the next time.

A perfect example is the pride and joy a gold-starred paper brings to a first grader who put effort into writing out the alphabet. An adult world illustration is the feel-good vibes a person gets when sticking to a diet/workout plan that results in a lower number on the scale. In both cases, the positive reinforcement encourages continued effort.

While positive reinforcement is touted in the realms of parenting and education, we sometimes forget that adults also respond well to positive reinforcement. People never outgrow the need for affirmative feedback.

In the workplace, positive reinforcement can motivate a team or an individual to greater productivity, creativity, even a more pleasant disposition. Even though this is common knowledge, too often those in leadership positions find it easier to bring up what their employees are doing wrong rather than to make mention of their accomplishments and improvements. In fact, studies show that over 70 percent of employees never hear their boss say “thank you.”

When the focus is less on what people are doing wrong and more on what they’re doing right, being and doing their best becomes a habit. Consistent praise and incentivizing will shift your team into a constant mode of top performance.

Positive reinforcement does not mean ignoring situations that must be addressed. At times, correcting or admonishing, in order to seek a solution, has to happen. But the sting can be lessened when the correction is wrapped around some positive reinforcement. Hmm, sounds like the Mary Poppins inspired suggestion, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…”

“We appreciate how well you connect with our customers, but we need to talk about the monthly reports that are a week overdue.”

“Your willingness to fill in those extra shifts has been such a help to the company. Now let’s discuss what steps will help you keep the department functioning more smoothly.”

Every scenario will be unique and different. The key is finding specific “sugar” that relates personally to each individual.

Great leaders understand the role positive reinforcement plays in spurring employees to function at their best. And these leaders make sure their management team incorporates routine feedback of a positive nature. Just as muscles need to be worked out on a regular basis to remain strong, positive reinforcement will net the best results when it happens as an organic characteristic of the company’s structure.

In Part 2, we’ll explore the best strategies for utilizing positive reinforcements.

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