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How to Effectively Positively Reinforce Employees

For a manager or supervisor to effectively positively reinforce an employee, there must be a pre-existing positive relationship. A supervisor cannot approach an employee with whom they have had innumerable negative interactions and credibly say something positive about the employee’s performance. Suspicion, distrust, and disassociation prevent a positive comment from having the desired effect.

Many supervisors have no experience saying positive things to their employees about their job performance, but the payoff for developing interaction skills is considerable. A few reasons why a supervisor should attempt to positively reinforce their employees include: 

  • Create a positive working relationship with the employee
  • Confirm to the employee that their performance is valued
  • Increase the probability that the employee will continue to perform well
  • Increase the probability that the employee will put forth extra effort for the product, service or customer
  • Identify performance behavior that other employees will model for similar approval
  • Ensure the employee will positively identify with and adopt the organizations goals and objectives (referred to as engagement)

Most organizations are attempting to develop a “total rewards,” culture to ensure that employees perform at their peak. There are five elements of total rewards, each of which includes programs, practices, elements and dimensions that collectively define an organization's strategy to attract, motivate and retain employees. These elements are:

  • Compensation
  • Benefits
  • Work-Life
  • Performance and Recognition
  • Development and Career Opportunities

Interestingly, survey data from disparate sources confirms that the positive effect of these elements can be negated by a poor supervisor-employee relationship. Well paid employees who like the company and their job often leave because they do not like their supervisor. These research data have maintained in every business and industry over the last 50 years. Most companies believe that the training programs they have in place have solved this problem, or they have given up and incorporated the turnover and lost profitability to the category of “uncontrollable.”

As I pointed out in my last blog entry, business and industry has found little success in improving supervisory skills through training, programs or books. Billions of dollars have been spent to change supervisory verbal behavior with little success. There are several realities about changing human behavior that provide some insights about why efforts to change supervisory behavior fail and point the way toward success.

  • You cannot change a supervisor’s personality, but you can change the things he or she says
  • Behavior cannot be changed in a class or workshop—it must be changed in the workplace—in a real work setting
  • New supervisory verbal behavior must be slowly shaped “in real time,” during interactions with employees; change take time
  • You must “set the stage,” for a supervisor to say the right things; it evolves out of context of work discussion; it cannot seem contrived
  • Supervisors will develop interaction skills over a period of months, not overnight
  • Each supervisor must be provided with a prescription for change that is constructed from an evaluation of their current skills
  • To effectively shape a leader, manager, or supervisors verbal behavior requires accurate feedback from his or her employees and/or a personal coach

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.

Questions or comments you should not make to an employee: 

  • Why did you do it wrong? Or, variations on the “blame-game” theme.
  • Haven’t we had this discussion before? Or, variations on the “badgering” theme.
  • What seems to be your problem? Or, variations on the “what the hell is wrong with you?” theme.
  • Didn’t I tell you too…? Or, variations on the “you didn’t follow orders,” theme
  • “Here’s what you need to do,” or, I have all the answers and do not need to do any problem solving or create a learning opportunity

Questions or comments that encourage an effective work discussion:

  • Is there anything I can do to help you today?
  • Did maintenance recalibrate the gages for you?
  • Did the Tech Dept. come by and help you with your computer problem?
  • Do you want me to get the engineer out here to take a look?
  • Did you see any improvement after we changed the setting for you?
  • Did procurement locate the new parts for you?

Appropriate and inappropriate questions can be developed by a task group that includes front line employees. Trainers, coaches, and HR representatives may also be included. The group’s objective is to collect real-world samples of supervisor/manager language to identify phrases and mannerisms that are counterproductive. Similarly, the things that supervisors say or do that create harmony and facilitate employee performance commitment should be pinpointed and used as part of a learning template for supervisory interaction skills.

Although most managers and supervisor have attended an “active listening,” or interaction skills workshop at some time in their career, classroom learning seldom elicits changes in participant’s words, phrases, and interaction skills. The ineffectiveness of interpersonal skills training is iconic in America. “Charm school,” “touch-me, feel-me,” and “love-ins,” are a few of the derogatory phrases used to describe the futility of these training models.

I believe that there are several sound reasons why interpersonal skills workshops consistently fail:

  1. They cover too many topics in a generalized manner.
  2. Participants are seldom provided specific feedback about their strengths and deficiencies prior to attending the training. They do not see the need and subsequently do not see the value.
  3. Changing verbal-interpersonal behavior requires precise pinpointing of the behaviors that need change, opportunities to practice the new behavior in a real world setting, and some kind of measurement and feedback to ensure the behavior is integrated into the individual’s repertoire.

Get employees involved in enabling supervisory/employee dialogues. Talk about ways to initiate daily discussions—set expectations, formulate the allowable topics, make the classes of statements transparent (positive, neutral, corrective), and allow the employee to talk. Listen, Listen, Listen.

In my next few blogs, I will continue to discuss the right way to verbally reinforce employees, how to develop a behavior-change prescription for each supervisor, and how to provide timely positive feedback to ensure new behavior is successful.