How to Motivate Employees with Positive Reinforcement

Last updated: Jan 17, 2020

So, your product is in high demand, your business model is an impressive production and delivery system for said product, your business processes and the workforce they guide are the envy of your competitors, and it’s all managed by people whose leadership record and potential are stellar. How do you build on that? Simple. With an eye toward keeping the arc of success curving up, you oversee smart investments of time and resources in your most valuable intangible asset, people. One proven approach to getting tangible results from investing in your people: Learn how to motivate employees with positive reinforcement.

business manager providing employee with positive reinforcement

Why Use Positive Reinforcement?

The codification, so to speak, of positive reinforcement dates to the early 20th century and the rise of the behaviorist school of psychology that yielded B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. The linchpin of that principle is reinforcement, positive and negative. Respond with a reward or reinforcement when someone performs a given action, and they will repeat it. Conversely, behavior that is not reinforced is less likely to be repeated.

The answer to why you should use positive reinforcement can be found in:

The Science

The number of motivators is limited only by imagination, but Psychology 101 defines only four types of reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement. Something beneficial is used (added) to produce a desired behavior. Give a child a treat for doing a chore.

Negative reinforcement. Remove a negative stimulant or circumstance to produce a desired behavior. A hungry baby’s crying motivates parents to feed it. The crying stops.

Punishment. Negative consequences are used to alter behavior. A child is given a time out for misbehaving.

Extinction. This is when something is taken away to alter behavior. A child habitually screams for candy when in a store and gets the candy. The adult decides not to reward the behavior and begins ignoring the screams. No candy eventually equals no screaming.

To understand a motivator, you have to consider its genesis. There are two categories, intrinsic (from within, driven by satisfaction/pride) and extrinsic (external drivers such as bonuses and kudos). Positive reinforcement primarily employs extrinsic drivers.

In 1959, psychologist Frederick Herzberg published Motivation to Work, a book that presents his theory on employee motivation. It cites two driving factors:

Motivators: These are workplace factors that include recognition, personal/professional growth, achievements, the work, responsibility.

Hygiene: These are workplace factors that largely are environmental and include security, policies, salary/compensation, conditions, supervisors.

business manager recognizing and congratulating an employee in front of her colleagues

The Statistics

An online Psychology Today article cites a 2014 “TINYpulse Employee Engagement and Organizational Culture Report” that explores employee motivation. The survey behind the report involved 500-plus organizations and more than 200,000 workers.

The magazine article focuses on responses to one question: “What motivates you to excel and go the extra mile at your organization?” There were 10 possible answers. Here they are, with percentages that reflect respondents’ choices.

  • Camaraderie, peer motivation (20 percent)
  • Intrinsic desire to a good job (17 percent)
  • Feeling encouraged and recognized (13 percent)
  • Having a real impact (10 percent)
  • Growing professionally (8 percent)
  • Meeting client/customer needs (8 percent)
  • Money and benefits (7 percent)
  • Positive supervisor/senior management (4 percent)
  • Believe in the company/product (4 percent)
  • Other (9 percent)

PositivePsychology.com has a lengthy article titled “Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace (90+ Examples & Reward Ideas)” that opens with this sentence: “What are the best ways to motivate employees and increase productivity?” The article considers answers ranging from promoting and enhancing positive feedback and communication to perks such as employee discounts.

The article includes these data points:

  • Encouraging growth and offering excellent benefits boosts worker satisfaction and reduces turnover.
  • Letting people bring their dogs to work raises employee satisfaction and lowers stress.
  • Providing onsite gyms reduces absenteeism and improves productivity.
  • Positive recognition promotes employee engagement.
  • Tuition assistance raises confidence along with job-related competence and satisfaction.
  • Quality child care eases work-family stress while boosting employee engagement and productivity.
  • Optimistic management styles help with employee engagement and performance.
  • Engaged employees are a company’s greatest asset.

The article also offers its own version of CliffsNotes, closing with a summary of “take-aways” that we further summarize here:

  • Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool for boosting workplace morale and productivity.
  • Positive reinforcement is effective when done in timely fashion and used in conjunction with good leadership techniques.
  • Positive reinforcement should be tailored to the individual to whom it is being applied.

 

The Critical Elements

There are a lot of elements to juggle in the positive reinforcement process, including:

 

Tools

The basic tools of employee motivation run the gamut from education/training, perks, monetary compensation, benefits such as pensions and insurance, and simple praise to actual tools such as TINYpulse (an employee feedback tool), Kudos (an employee recognition system), and gamification.

Gamification, according to Bunchball, which offers related software, uses a game-playing approach on digital platforms “to drive meaningful behaviors and improve performance across all types of workforces, whether in-house or distributed, hourly or professional.” For example, your team might play a game wherein accrued points can be used to purchase rewards.

 

Intangibles

Beyond motivation strategies such as hiring motivated people and setting clear and achievable goals, two foundational but intangible elements of success here are communication and transformational leadership. We’re talking two-way communication, clearly delivering and patiently receiving a message – up, down, and across the food chain.

As for transformational leadership, Verywell Mind online says, “Transformational leaders are generally energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate. Not only are these leaders concerned and involved in the process; they are also focused on helping every member of the group succeed as well.”

 

Challenges

Diversity is a workplace boon, but it poses challenges, too. In the Middle East, for example, the thumbs-up gesture is offensive. So, cultural awareness is a must, particularly for managers who want to avoid praise that unexpectedly punishes.

Also consider that:

  • Positive reinforcement that works for a millennial could land with a dull thud on a baby boomer. And there typically are more than two generations present in the workplace.
  • Managers must know their people well enough to recognize what will work best when applying reinforcement. Personalize how you motivate each employee.

manager congratulating employee

So, Why and How Should You Use Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace?

A headline on an online Entrepreneur magazine story delivers the bottom-line answer on why positive reinforcement should be the employer’s motivator of choice: “It’s Science, Baby! Proving the Power of Positive Reinforcement at Work.”

And how should you use positive reinforcement to motivate employees? First, understand how it works, then:

Create and sustain a positive atmosphere through a transformational management mindset and employee-centric decisions on hygiene, from compensation to ergonomics. Then:

  • Set reasonable goals that are in keeping with your mission statement and workforce expectations.
  • Don’t exclude fun from the work plan.
  • When due, praise individually and en masse, and do it publicly when possible.
  • Deliver the kudos as soon as possible, with clarity and details.

At workday’s end, it’s about leading with the head and the heart. As first lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”

Need to work on your leadership skills? The Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education can help. Embedded in a range of programs such as hospitality leadership and human resource management are courses that go granular, including motivation-related classes such as Compensation Design and Administration.

 

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