The conventional perspective on positive reinforcement (words like recognize, acknowledge, compliment, reward are incorrectly uses as synonyms for positive reinforcement) is that you approach someone with a piece of positive information about something they have done and say, “John, you really did some good work on that job.”
It sounds great but unfortunately does not take into consideration the reality of the workplace. A manager or supervisor who has a history of being negative or has spent no time getting to know the employee such that they have no relationship, can create a negative employee reaction. The statement seems contrived and manipulative; that is, it is perceived to be provided with the objective of wanting something additional from the employee. At best it is perceived to express an underlying agenda. Often these kind of statements contradict the employees own sense of self-worth.
Many employees do not have a positive self-image and these kinds of statements make them uncomfortable. Recognizing others can be tricky, even when you are being honest and sincere. You have to take into consideration their past history with you and anticipate their reaction to positive evaluations of their behavior.
The best way to provide positive recognition for employee performance is to weave it into a work dialog that also deals with other work-related issues. For instance, you can stop by to talk with an employee concerning their opinion about a change in the product, their equipment, the availability or speed with which they are being provided essential supplies, their experience with a new task, or instructions to name a few.
All of these subjects allow you to mention what has gone well, positive outcomes related to their work, ideas they have contributed that helped, or problems they identified and passed along. A statement like, “It is a good thing you noticed that the pump was about to go. That saved us a lot of time and money.”
You might say, “yes but that doesn’t tell them how appreciative you are and how great their contribution was.” Exactly, so you avoid any complications discussed above; what they did that mattered is covertly included in your statement about the pump. Most employees complain on surveys that they do not get positive comments or praise for their work. They are really saying that their work goes unnoticed. What they really want is to know is their work is watched and tracked – because their performance is important to the company.
For most of us, attention from others is a positive thing. Attention validates us; it establishes that other are attending to us, watching what we do, and noticing us in general. In a sense, it confirms our existence and value. Many people feel like cogs in a wheel at work; they feel invisible. Attention about our competence is even rarer. Even if we are uncomfortable being praised, we feel good knowing that when we do things right, it is noticed.
Unfortunately, most employees are expected to do a “job,” and how well they do it is often ignored. If they make a mistake, it is usually pointed out quickly. Supervisory conversations with employees about work are tremendous performance enhancers. That’s right! Talking with someone about their job, asking questions about what they need to work more safely or to improve quality, collecting ideas about increasing efficiency and reducing waste, discussing work instructions, and passing along information about the next week’s work issues are motivation builders.
Oh yes, and it doesn’t hurt to provide corrective feedback and positive feedback about small contributions as well. The fact that you talk with an employee about their job encourages them to contribute in ways that ensure the continuation of a positive work dialog and future affirmation of their worth.
If you have been made uncomfortable by the company’s request that you positively reinforce employees, keep this article in mind. Stop to talk and notice efforts that add value. You will be fulfilling the company’s requirements and you will notice a pronounced improvement in employee performance.