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How the Grinch Learned to Use Positive Reinforcement

The header on this post brought someone to mind immediately, didn’t it? Not a bad guy…he has probably been a faithful employee…has his (or her) good days and bad days. Sometimes you steer clear of him; maybe he is not only unpredictable, but quirky…not in a—hah-hah! -- kind of way, but in a tension-inducing kind of way.

Maybe the header reminded you of you; you’re great employee, well motivated, hard worker, know your job and how things work in your department better than anyone. Then, you got promoted you to a supervisor or a manager and you started feeling kind-of uncomfortable. When you did the work yourself, you were self-assured, confident; now you have to get things done through others—manage—and it’s a whole different ball game.

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times—recognize your employees for doing good work; use positive reinforcement—they will be happy and motivated and, most of all, they will like you. The company brochures talk about it, the company trainer teaches and promotes it, and your manager asks you if you are doing it…it’s a nightmare. You feel like a bad guy. A Grinch? Maybe, all you know is that it just does not feel comfortable—it just doesn’t seem genuine—it seems dishonest, to go out and say positive things to people when they have done something you used to do without expecting or wanting any recognition.

Actually, it makes you mad to think that you have to positively reinforce people for doing what they are paid to do; you think, maybe I have the wrong attitude to be a supervisor; maybe I’m not cut out to coach others. I didn't need any coaching myself. I’m doing well in every other aspect of this job. But, the people side of this thing is making me feel like a failure.

Since I have taught over 100,000 supervisors and managers how to use positive reinforcement, I think I can say without fear of contradiction that if you have similar feelings, you are the rule, not the exception. Most supervisors are somewhat uncomfortable with the people-side of their jobs. You know you are not supposed to be negative, but what do you do when your employees don’t do what they are trained, instructed, and paid to do? How do you positively reinforce an employee for something good they did, when most of the time they appear not to care about the job, the product, the quality, or the customer?

Sometimes, you wind up doing nothing when people are not performing--when you know you should be disciplining or correcting them. Your manager has repeatedly reminded you not to be negative--be positive. It seems like the whole program is to ignore poor performers and intermittently give out some conspicuous public awards for gains and efficiencies that new systems or equipment or processes really caused. Keep everybody happy. Don't make waves

Often, supervisors only talk to an employee when there is some type of work related problem. For this reason, the supervisor is constantly paired with bad news. Seeing your supervisor headed your way is like opening the mailbox and seeing a letter from the IRS; you just feel that what is about to follow is not good news. When you are always the bad news guy, you become the Grinch.

You cannot really positively reinforce anyone, unless your comments mean something to them, unless you have a productive relationship with them. If you have a history of only discussing problems, critiquing, pointing out errors and shortcomings—then you cannot come around intermittently and say something good about what someone did or achieved and expect them to melt with happiness. They think you are up to something—they are suspicious. And, you are not too happy either because you feel their distrust; the tension is mutually perceived. It just doesn’t work.

I have some good news. Recent research has disclosed that supervisors do not have to fit into the old “people skills” stereotype to have the highest performing, happiest employees. When researchers observed managers over several months and recorded their behavior, they found that there are very specific things that the highest performing supervisors (those supervisors who consistently had the most profitable departments) did—things that were more important than their personality profiles, traits, or other attributes. These behaviors were consistent across industries, geography—even the best coaches did them.

What the Best Performing Supervisors Do

  1. The supervisors with the best records of motivating others to excel and perform make it a point to be where the work is happening; they walk among their employees. They amble and peruse and observe. Amongst the activities, they look and ask questions. They are casual; they don’t carry a clipboard or take notes. They monitor the work and find out how things are going. And, they make it a point not to look for just problems. They do not ask questions meant to trap employees in order to correct them for an infraction.

Monitoring employees while they are working is what you might call real-time supervision. It is a form of work-sampling—being there to watch the employee do their jobs—interact with the equipment, the product, and the customer. The best supervisors find a way to be there when their employees are doing the job.

  1. During daily visits, the highest performing supervisors have natural, casual conversations about the work, the equipment, resources, tools, schedules—anything that might influence the employee’s performance. And, most importantly, the supervisors make comments about what the employee has done—some positive, some neutral, and some corrective.

A positive comment 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.” The point is, positive reinforcement does not have to be staged or artificial sounding; in fact, high-sounding praise may come across as less than sincere. To build a relationship with an employee to the point where he trusts your comments requires a history of interactions—interactions that have natural mix of positives, neutrals and corrective statements.

In my next post, I will talk further about work monitoring—about real time supervision—being where the action is, as a step toward creating a natural dialogue with employees. Before you can learn how to become an effective positive reinforcer, you must first learn how to talk with employees.