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How to Become a Positive Reinforcer

Most supervisors and managers want to be liked and respected by their employees. Many of us don't have a likable personality; we are not well suited to be supervisors. We either don't have the social skills or we are too impatient or we are too perfectionistic. But, we have the job and we're doing our best.

We're told supervisors who get the highest levels of performance from their employees use positive reinforcement (R+, positive verbal comments about employee job performance). The problems is, positive reinforcement does not work – your efforts to R+ someone are not effective – if you have a poor relationship with the person you are trying to R+. Your relationship with an employee does not improve just because you try to make positive comments about something they have done on the job.

There is a way to build your relationship with employees and deliver positive reinforcement at the same time; you can follow a self-development strategy that I outline below and achieve both objectives simultaneously. For instance, suppose you see an employee doing something good, you see Allison walk over and remind Dave to stand in a different position while he is working.

Currently, he is standing in the line of fire. If the valve he is closing were to experience a surge in hydraulic pressure, it might blow the seal and send the handle shooting at him like a bullet. So he needs to stand along side the valve, not in front of it.

This is great! The behavior-based safety system your company has been implementing over the last two months is working. An employee is looking out for a co-worker. That’s what it’s all about. So you do what your consultant has taught you to do, you walk over immediately and say to Allison—"I saw you help Dave by asking him to move out of the line of fire. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to help him. That will prevent a possible injury. Good job."

You’re feeling pretty good about this – thinking your consultant would be proud if she had seen you deliver this verbal recognition. That was a great example of verbal positive reinforcement – you have to admit it.

But, something is wrong; Allison doesn’t look all happy and flattered and satisfied. She has been positively reinforced; she’s supposed to look happy and appreciative. That’s what the book says; that’s what the consultant says. Why doesn’t she look like she liked it? She actually has a sarcastic expression on her face. You think, "I knew this positive reinforcement stuff was not going to work for me. Well, I not doing it anymore; it's not me – it's not my style."

The preceding scenario is played out every day where supervisors are trying to change their approach – where they are trying to have a more positive impact on the performance of their employees. The response Warren received is one of the reasons that it is so hard for supervisors to develop verbal reinforcement skills. When they first attempt to use verbally reinforce an employee, they have a negative experience – it is punitive for them.

Books about how to use positive reinforcement can make it sound easy; you see an employee doing something outstanding – a behavior that adds-value, that keeps a coworker safe, that avoids a problem, that ensures quality – then you say something positive about what they did. The employee will be encouraged to behave in that way more often. R+ing people for extra effort means you will see more extra effort.

There are a few factors that explain why this simply model of positive reinforcement (R+) does not always work. For instance:

Your history with that employee has been negative. You have not said positive things in the past; you have been over-critical of the employee. You have no relationship with the employee; you have only talked to them when there was a problem.

You do not know how to say positive things about the work of others; you have never done it and think they should be doing their best without any reinforcement. When you attempt to make positively reinforcing statements, it always feels uncomfortable, like you are reading from a script. Both you and the employee are uncomfortable.

This employee, like many who work for you, does not appear to like attention. Words of praise seem to embarrass him or her. You think they are afraid that other employees will think they are trying to be the supervisor’s-pet. They may be afraid of being rejected by their peers if you say positive things to them.

Everybody thinks you are being fakey. You used to be quiet and only talk to employees when they needed instructions or they made a mistake. Since the behavior-based safety initiative started, you have started saying positive things to people about their safe behavior and they think you are only doing it because the program requires that you do it. They don’t trust your motives.

If we could overhear Allison talking with her friend and coworker, Barb, in the break area after your attempt to verbally reinforce her we might hear some thing that would help us understand why she appeared unresponsive to Warren.

“Barb, did you see Warren come over and talk to me about an hour ago?”

Barb is preoccupied with “General Hospital,” but she tries to look enthusiastic for Allison’s sake.

“Oh yeah, I saw him headed in your direction and wondered how bad you’d screwed up.”

“Well, that’s what I thought when I saw him coming; I kept thinking—what’d I do this time?”

“Well, what’d you do?” Barb was getting interested now; she started really listening and ignored the soap opera on the TV – it was one of her favorites, but this had all the signs of juicy-gossip that could be repeated to her other friends.

“Turns out I didn’t do anything wrong. He wanted to compliment me because I told Dave to get his ass out from in front of that valve he was working on.”

Barb knew Dave had been here so long he was getting sloppy about the safety rules. He had never been hurt so he thought he was superman or something.

Barb said, “Well, I’m glad you’re looking out for him, he needs a safety momma.”

“Shut up. I saw you telling that new guy how to fill out the observation sheet yesterday.”

“Yeah, but he’s cute and he ain’t old as a dinosaur – and he don’t have unsafe habits yet.”

“Well anyway, Warren is going through this little speech that the new consultant gave him you see, and I’m thinking he must be squirming on the inside ‘cause he never had much to say before this. So I know he’s in new territory – doing all this talking.”

Barb knew what Allison meant. “Yeah, he never had anything to say to me before unless it was to tell me something I messed up or I was going to have to work overtime or something like that.”

“Well, I didn’t make it easy on him. I had an expression on my face like I smelled something bad and he noticed. I don’t care what kind of lessons he is getting from that new consultant – she should have been here a few years back when he got promoted; he needed some lessons back then.”

Barb said, “Yeah, I don’t trust him – getting nice and attentive all of a sudden. He’s ignored all the good things we’ve done over the years and now, all of a sudden he’s seen the light?”

Allison thought he might be going for the Employee of the Month Award, except they stopped that last year because all the employees had gotten it at least once and it was getting old.

If Warren had heard this conversation, he would have understood exactly what they were talking about. He knew that was not a warm and personable guy; he had some negative habits. The only time he talked to his employees was when there were instructions to hand out or a problem to discuss. Warren also knew that they would be suspicious of him saying anything positive about their work, but he was trying to get over his anxiety. He wanted to get on better terms with his employees. He wanted to try to acknowledge their good work, but they weren’t making it easy – looking at him all funny every time he tried to say something positive to them.

Supervisor and managers are told that they need to R+ their employees, but they are not told how to change their own behavior – how to use positive reinforcement in a manner that does not create credibility issues, raise questions about their agenda or make them feel ridiculous. Nobody teaches them how to overcome the anxiety of saying new things to your employees; how to do it in a way that allows you and the employee to be comfortable.

Most of us do not have a history of positively reinforcing the behavior of those around us; we do not consciously apply R+ to our peers, boss, employees, children, customers, or people on the street. We want people to do certain thing more often; we want others to do things we like, that benefit us, more frequently. We even know how to make that happen. Positively reinforce the behavior and the behavior will happen more often in the future.

Looking for errors, making critical comments, being "bossy" and telling people what to do, not listening – these are all negative verbal habits that take years to develop. Your subordinates tolerate this, because they have to; they don't like this kind of behavior and if they can transfer or find another job they will often choose to leave. Positive reinforcement – seeing the value-added, noticing improvement, commenting on employees' strengths – this style of supervision can become a habit that replaces other less desirable habits. But scripted, over-rehearsed, unnatural positive verbal statements will not do the trick. It's not natural.

Nobody ever told us that even though we use verbal reinforcement – even though we say positive things and try to say them in the right way – they may not be well received. The new verbal behavior we are practicing conflicts with our behavioral history – we have old habits; we’re trying to develop some new habits.

So, how does a supervisor who has been extremely quiet or loudly negative change their style and behave like a positive supervisor--naturally. Well, if you have read my past blogs, you know that it goes something like this. When you learn about the value of positive reinforcement, and you know that it is the right way to get the highest levels of performance from you employees and you start trying to use it, follow the sequence presented below and you will develop R+ as a natural habit.

Developing Positive Reinforcement as a Natural Habit

  • You don't have to start saying positive things (attempting positive reinforcement) immediately. Start your self-development process by going out to talk with your employees every day or two. Your objective is to ask them a question and "listen." Make it specific—about something that is relevant to their jobs: “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?”—ask a credible question. Make it brief. Start getting comfortable with brief encounters.
  • After your employees are comfortable with your informal visits, start extending the discussions by asking more questions about their work. What do they need? What barrier to performance can you help they remove? Slowly work up to longer conversations. Pay attention to their non-verbal behavior. If they appear anxious or uncomfortable, cut it short. As they become more comfortable talking with you about the work and their job, draw them out. Do more listening than talking. Nod you head to show that you are breathing. Practice your active listening skills.
  • When your employees are comfortable with work discussions, occasionally make a positive remark about something they have done. Comments 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.” Make it brief. Mention what they did and the effect it had on their job or the department or the product. Keep it short.
  • Extend your work discussion; give them more positive feedback and some neutral comments (tomorrow, you will need to make that change about 2:00 PM.) By this time, you should be able to talk openly with them without creating suspicion. You have had many discussions about their work, their job, the department, etc.
  • Finally, when it is appropriate when you have developed a relationship with an employee, then you can interject comments about things they can or should change to improve their performance. Don’t throw a bunch of stuff that you have been sitting on at them at one time. Balance your work discussions. Positive comments (positive feedback), neutral comments (factual stuff about the job) and one or two corrective comments.

As you go through this self-development process, you need to pace it in accord with the employee’s readiness. They will give you non-verbal cues that tell you how comfortable they are. When the comfort is there, move to the next level. You are not on a schedule, so take your time; move at a pace that is comfortable for you and the employee.

During this series of steps, the employees will be changing their expectations for you – building comfort, building trust, reducing their suspicions about your intentions – your agenda. Your comfort level with your own behavior will change as well. When you are ready, when it feels right – when it feels natural – start experimenting with short, positive expressions of satisfaction and appreciation about the employee’s performance. At this point, you have developed a reinforcing relationship with them, and when you attempt to R+ them for a behavior it will have the desired effect.

Positive reinforcement works with employees who trust you, when the employee is not suspicious about your motives – when your comments about their work (the behavior that deserved reinforcement) are reasonable. Short, factual, accurate observations about job performance are acceptable to employees. They need to get both positive and negative feedback about their work; it is the only way they can continuously improve.

Learning how to use positive reinforcement – making R+ a natural habit takes time. A supervisor, manager or leader must have a self-development plan in place to make the change. The 5 step development plan I presented above, will work for anyone. We are all suspicious of "quick" changes in people's behavior. When change happens incrementally – over time, it seems natural, substantive, and real.