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A Positive Reinforcement Strategy That Works!

Stop trying to use positive reinforcement!Instead, have a brief conversation with each of your employees as often as possible—everyday is not too often.Face-to-face, have a casual discussion about their work—“how’s it going?”

Stop thinking about positive reinforcement and recognition as comments like—“You really did a good job on that report Jim,” or “Thanks for getting that report complete on time Alice.” The words “Good job,” and “Thank you,” are being overused and employees have heard it so much it no longer makes a point. More importantly, there are simpler and easier ways to positively reinforce someone for extra effort, vigilance, or showing they care about the company.

Set the stage for positive reinforcement by asking a broad question about the employee’s job—“Did the tech guys get by to work on that computer problem you were having?” “Did purchasing let you know if they can get those parts in by next week?” “Can Maya cover for you next week so that you can take your daughter to the doctor?” “Is there anything I can do to help today?”

Think about it this way, what makes you feel better—when someone comes straight out with a sentence that praises you for doing something job related, or when someone indirectly, but clearly acknowledges the value of something you have done--during a normal conversation.

Below are some examples of attempts to positively reinforce an employee. Some set the stage, others are more direct. The background--suppose an employee gave a co-worker a few pointers about how to get the job done better, and the result was that the department’s through-put increased by several percentage points. Which one of the following statements by your manager would make you more comfortable? Which would you be most comfortable in delivering? 

  • “John, I really appreciate the extra time you took to help Warren. It’s really paying off. The department’s throughput is up by 7% today. Thanks for taking the time to help.”
  • “John, Warren was telling me that you gave him some pointers. Now we are ahead of schedule. Could you give Tracy a hand? She’s been falling behind recently.”
  • “John, thanks for doing a good job helping your co-workers. I really appreciate your extra effort.”
  • “John, I just stopped by to see if Roy from engineering contacted you. I asked him to talk with you about the problem you’ve been having. By the way, throughput has increased since you helped Warren; would you mind telling me about the pointers you gave him? I think there are some other people who could benefit as well.”
  • “Hi John, just stopped by to see if there is anything you need. I know that Ward is out today and you have to take up the slack. I was just talking to Warren and he was telling me how much you helped him. By the way, the new Excel sheet you put together is really going to give us better data.”
  • “Hi John, Paul’s a happy man today. You got on that pump so fast he didn’t lose production and he’s smiling ear to ear.”
  • “John, I’ve been trying to come up with some ways to help us increase our throughput. Warren said you gave him some good ideas that have really helped. Would you mind sharing those ideas with me?”
  • “Hey man! Warren is saying some good stuff about the pointers you gave him. I think you've made a friend for life. He says he’s going to nominate you for employee of the year. I told him not to say stuff like that it would go to your head. Anyway, would you give me those pointers? A few other people need some help.”
  • “Hey John, is there anything you need today? We’re moving fast since you worked with Warren. The change you made in the procurement process is getting our material here faster as well. See you later.”

Which one would you have liked to hear? The examples demonstrate that there is more than one way to positively reinforce someone and the experience does not have to be uncomfortable for you or for the employee you are reinforcing. Any one of these examples may work for you. The exact wording depends on your relationship with that particular employee.

If you are on good terms with an employee, that is, you have a friendly rapport, you like each other, you are both relaxed when talking—then you can be more relaxed about what you say; the employee is unlikely to misinterpret positive statements as “having a covert agenda,” or think “you are up to something.”

If for some reason, you have a neutral or poor relationship with an employee, you have to be careful that your comments are not too directly complimentary. Expressions like, “you did great,” or “I appreciate the good job you always do,” or “Thanks for…,” are often received suspiciously. Make your positive reinforcement more indirect, casual—part of a normal conversation like most of the examples above.

Talking about the work in a general way provides you with an opportunity to reference something the employee has done—some behavior—without appearing to be artificial, contrived or insincere. Employees are very sensitive to the words that are used to discuss their job performance. They interpret words, phrases and sentences as positive, neutral or punitive. An employee’s energy, commitment, and desire to perform well are all influenced by the way their supervisor talks to them.

Give yourself a break; start practicing “work-talk” with positive reinforcement on the side. Have a practical discussion about the job, the equipment, the process, needed resources, or process barriers for the employee—then allude to a contribution, an extra effort, or a value added behavior. Positive reinforcement comments that can be easily worked into the context of a discussion with an employee might sound like, “That will work,” or “It’s a good start,” or “We got to try to do it that way every time,” or “OK,” or “That’s going to save us a bunch of time.”

If you start talking to your employees, you will find there are more opportunities to comfortably positively reinforce them. It becomes easier to positively reinforce them using words that are comfortable and accepted by them. Stop going out with the objective that you are going to “say something positive to someone about something they have done.” There is nothing wrong with establishing positive reinforcement as a purpose, but that objective can often be best achieved in the context of a relaxed work discussion with casual references to an employee’s worthy behavior.