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Developing Positive Reinforcement Skill: Step 1 – Part Two

In Step 1 of the Leading with Positive Reinforcement: 5 Self-Development Steps, I covered the need to delete punitive verbal habits from your interpersonal style. It is difficult for any of us to admit that we are sabotaging employee relationships because we use words and body language that puts people off.It is probable that the verbal habits that create a relationship barrier between you and your employees will have the same effect on your peers, boss, and family.If you have worked on this and feel that you are careful in the way you talk to your employees, then please ignore this section and skip forward to the next part of step 1.

I recently spent several days in a manufacturing plant in America—in a company that says and does all the things fashionable to create employee engagement.As I had occasion to talk with the front line employees, they expressed dissatisfaction in regard to supervisory interpersonal behavior.The supervisor’s peers corroborated the employee’s concerns.


Because it was a rural manufacturing site, employees treasured their jobs; the site had almost zero turnover because this was the only employer around that paid decently.Supervisors recognized that employees were highly motivated to keep their jobs.Supervisors who had a punitive supervisory style had no motivation to change or improve their interaction habits; employees tolerated the behavior because there was no other place to work.If they had other employers to choose from, they would leave.

Trying to implement a rewards and recognition or a positive reinforcement system in this kind of environment is futile.Beneath the rhetoric, smiles and positive talk, the employees sense a deep hypocrisy; management talks the talk, but they do not walk the walk.Employee engagement and employee performance potential will never be fully realized in this environment.

The most critical component of a rewards culture is the relationship that exist between supervisor and employee. This is where the system breaks down, and climate surveys reflect broken systems throughout the nation. Employee engagement is only an illusion until supervisors know how to create real partnerships with employees--partnerships with mutual respect--collaboration and unity, mutual commitment to the companies mission.

Many progressive companies survey their employees and use the information for supervisory/management development, promotions, bonuses, and raises.In these environments, the consequences for subtle abuse—for disrespecting employees by word or deed is highly probable. The transparency of their interactive style encourages supervisors to either develop positive interpersonal skills or face frustration and ultimate job performance failure.

Assuming that you have concrete, effective checks and balances in place that motivate supervisors and managers to work on their interaction skills, and that you have feedback mechanisms in place to provide them with quantitative information about the effect their verbal and non-verbal behavior has on others, then you are prepared to move through the 5 step process.Keep in mind, that a frontline supervisor’s boss should be using the 5 step self-development process his or herself.So, the supervisor’s boss will be talking with the supervisor frequently, giving him or her positive reinforcement for their interactive behaviors; they will be going through the same self-development process.

Developing Positive Reinforcement Skill: Step 1—Part Two

Preparing for a Successful Change Initiative

The best way to start any change effort is to involve the employees.Gather you employees together and explain the objectives of the change initiative—what you will be doing differently, the benefits to them, and the role they can play.Management and supervisory anxiety and resistance to change is reduced when organizational change tactics are clear and employee suspicion has been removed through effective communication and participation. 

The 5 step self-development process is accelerated in a business unit where upper management (or department management) brings all the employees together to communicate and more importantly to involve them in the process. The structure of this meeting is dependent on the culture, climate, trust levels, history of employee involvement in problem solving and improvement, and labor relations, to name a few.

You can begin the kickoff meeting by telling employees that beginning next week, supervisors will be stopping by to talk with them more often.The reasons for increased contact are to:

  • Discuss safety issues that are causing you concern.Conditions, equipment—anything that you perceive as a risk to you or your coworkers
  • Opportunity for you to get faster, more accurate information about what is going on in the department and business unit that might effect you or your work
  • Discuss any problems you may be having with your equipment, the availability of performance-critical information, the tools you need to do the job effectively
  • Talk with your supervisor about things that are going well; identify new ways of doing things that could be shared with others to help make a better product (or deliver better service or satisfy customers better)
  • Have a discussion with you that helps him or her understand how our processes and systems may be helping or hindering your work
  • Discover real-time adjustments that need to be made to avoid anticipated problems that your experience allows you to foresee
  • Help your supervisor anticipate situations that may require the system wide, immediate involvement of other work groups or departments and take action

You might also lead into an exercise that involves everyone in the process as follows:

There are a lot of benefits to all of us for knowing more about what is going on—problems that are evolving and opportunities to improve our systems and processes.More timely, open discussions will help us identify barriers to performance and resolve them more quickly.

In the next few weeks, we will be trying to determine the most important points to cover when we talk with you.We will need your help in assuring that we focus on things that are important in helping you get the job done.We hope to create a mutually beneficial dialog that helps us work together more effectively.

You can help us get a good start on this.At each table there is a tablet and pin; if one person would be the scribe, please brainstorm a list of things that you might want to cover routinely when your supervisor stops by to talk.Think about the times when you have had an improvement idea that you thought would make your job work better, or when you have had a need for something that would help you. Maybe our current processes or procedures are creating a problem and they need overhauling to make them better.

Safety is an important to us we want you work in a comfortable, secure environment. We want to know when the equipment, a task, or hazardous conditions pose a threat to your safety. Maybe you wanted maintenance to check on something but you didn’t want to go through the procedure for getting them there.Or, you need a tech guy to keep from losing valuable time, but you know it will be two days before he gets to you.

We want to identify what’s working; we want to know our strengths.So, please take a few minutes and put down a list of things that you think will help us become more successful.Tamara and Russell will be moving around the tables to coach you through any problems you may be having.Thanks for your help.

If you are a supervisor or manager attempting personal development, you may not have the advantage of a leadership sponsored company initiative to create a climate that supports your efforts. You can still be successful if you follow the self-development steps. The change process I have developed is directed toward supervisors who have been negative in the past, but have decided to develop positive management habits. Negative managers--toxic bosses--anyone who feels that they have been doing things one way and they want to try another, have nothing to be ashamed about.

No one chooses to behave in ways that create problems for them. Supervisors who have an ineffective style have a learning history that created that style. It is not about bad people and good people; it is about learning. Supervisors, managers, and leaders can relearn--they can change verbal behavior and change the effect they have on their employees and others around them. The steps we are reviewing creates a nurturing environment that guarantees successful behavior change.

I would encourage any supervisor, manager or leader to consider self-development as job security. The world of work is going to continue to reward supervisors who can create productive partnerships with their employees. Supervisors who can create reinforcing relationships with their employees are more profitable to the organization. Their employees have fewer injuries, lost time, absences, better quality, service and timeliness. Supervisors who encourage discretionary effort through effective, positive interactions are valuable assets. Generation Y is accelerating the need for supervisors and managers who have mastered positive reinforcement.