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Leading with Positive Reinforcement: 5 Self-Development Steps

Positive reinforcement works; it fulfills every employee’s basic need to feel valued—cared about by the organization, their supervisor and leadership.Positive reinforcement is precision recognition—it acknowledges the employees contribution in real time; it captures the moment when a valued added behavior—discretionary effort can be encouraged or discouraged.

Traditional rewards and recognition strategies do not facilitate employee behavior directly. They are most often presented for performance results and outcomes.Before the benefits of precise recognition—positively reinforcing specific behavior in real-time—were well known, management assumed that kudos received for results influenced the critical behaviors that led to those results.

There are several problems with this assumption.When an organization chooses to reward a job or department performance result, they cannot be certain that all the behavior that led to that result is in the best interest of the company. Subtle pressure associated with awards and recognition practices often encourages employees to do things—to engage in behavior that is detrimental to themselves, the team, the product and the customer.

Shortcuts, intra-team competition—even unethical behavior has been associated with employee competitive desire to “win”—to get the plaque, the jacket, or the picture in the company newsletter.Although the intentions of organizational rewards and recognition systems is appreciation and employee satisfaction, many employees are competitors and they want to be on top. Things can get ugly.

The top 10% of employees usually stay in the top 10%--given a fair opportunity.So they always “win.” Rewards and recognition systems seek to compensate for this by giving awards that are not related to performance, non-contingent awards—like, “the best attitude,” or “most positive team member, or “employee of the month.” These types of awards can trivialize a rewards and recognition process and derail their key objective of —to improve human performance.

In addition, assuming that employees are doing things in the best way to achieve the best possible performance outcome is often a mistake. High performers may engage in behavior that improves quality, productivity, or customer service but they do not share these “best practice behaviors,” with the team; to do so would disadvantage their opportunity for rewards and recognition.

Subsequently, institutionalizing the effective use of positive reinforcement in an organization is ultimately a risk management objective; a company’s performance and profitability is at risk when behavior is not effectively managed.Employee injury is an obvious liability to organizational effectiveness.The costs are well documented.Leaders and managers understand the critical importance of managing job safety behavior. Proper lifting, equipment placement, correct ergonomics—the behaviors necessary to prevent injury are precise and explicit.

Similarly, the effective application of positive reinforcement to specific, key job behaviors will increase productivity, quality, service and waste reduction.That is why overcoming supervisory and management resistance to the daily use of positive reinforcement is so essential to achieving the highest levels of human performance and engagement.The key to developing supervisory and management potential—to developing their skills, their ability to effect employee performance levels—is the precise, real time application of positive reinforcement to value-added job behavior.

Developing Positive Reinforcement Skill: Step 1

Think slow transition.Whatever you management style at the moment, any abrupt change in you behavior is over-interpreted by those you manage.Sinister agendas are proposed…word spreads rapidly; what’s up?The first change you need to make in you verbal behavior is to start eliminating words, phrases, comments and questions that convey negative expectations; blame, fault finding, parenting, dictating—you may have some destructive verbal habits that create a barrier between you and those you are supervising.

Self-observation is difficult.Our verbal habits are so ingrained that we sometimes even deny that we said something when a witness points it out to us.One bad habit that seems universal to anyone who parents, coaches or manages is the use of rhetorical questions to find out why someone has made a mistake—they either failed to do something we wanted them to do, or did it wrong.“What were you thinking?” or “why didn’t you think to ask? or “how do you expect us to get good service ratings if you behave like that?”

These kinds of questions only serve to emotionalize the situation—frustrating you and angering the employee.The accusatory tone creates a wedge between employee and supervisor.Other statements that purport to correct employee behavior but are equally destructive are things like—“You’re going to have to,” or “from now on, you need to,” or “start paying more attention.”Everyone is sensitive to the tone and intentions of language pointed toward them.If you have bad interaction habits, you need to identify them and eliminate them.

Many executive have personal coaches to help them develop positive interaction habits.In some organizations, supervisors work in pairs to help each other identify counterproductive verbal habits.They provide positive feedback to each other when positive verbal comments are made.Surveys that gather information from employees and peers can surface verbal habits that need to be changed.

Whether you identify destructive verbal habits through self-observation or some other means, you need to set the stage for the next part of Step 1—which will be to gradually increase the frequency of interactions with your employees.If you think your method of interacting is positive and relationship building, then move forward to the next phase described in the next entry.