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New Positive Reinforcement Strategies

If don’t have people skills, if you are a manager or supervisor who is perfectionistic, impatient, and thinks that employees should do what they are paid to do without any need for motivation or positive reinforcement, then you are among the 75% of managers who feel the same way. But, don’t feel that you are doomed to be at odds with all the management development initiatives and consultants that ask you to positively reinforce your employees for improvement, extra effort or outstanding achievement.

Recent research presents a different perspective on the best way to encourage employees to perform their best. It seems that supervisors and managers who talk to employees frequently about their work, who stop by during the day to check on “how things are going,” supervisors who make casual but specific comments about what they see the employee doing right or wrong, have better performing departments and work groups than managers who intermittently apply more dramatic positive reinforcers to employee behavior or results. This is good news for managers who do not want to change their personalities and who are uncomfortable with delivering verbal praise for employee work behavior.

It requires a manager to spend more time talking to employees about their daily work experience, but the time is productive—its allows the manager to know in advance if there are issues related to the machinery, the process, materials, resources, etc. It provides the manager with a natural context for presenting an employee with information about how the employee is doing—a balanced discussion of the work. The reason that this approach works, is that positive reinforcement is not best applied as dramatic, positive verbal pronouncements that traditional approaches have led us to believe.

For instance, in the midst of a work discussion, if a supervisor responds to something an employee says that he or she did with an, “OK,” the effect is positive—an expression that is short affirms an employee's performance as well as a statement like, “Great Bill, I think that adding that information to the work sheet will help the next shift get started without the confusion that we sometimes have.” There is nothing wrong with the second statement. It works to let the employee know that a specific behavior has added value. However, if an employee says, “I added several comments about recalibrating the gages at the end of the shift to make sure that the evening shift can get kicked off smoothly,” there are several types of supervisory responses that will work as well to positively reinforce the employee. One or two word positive reinforcers like “Great,” or “That will work,” or “Good idea,” will get the same result and most importantly, come across more naturally than an out-of-character, lengthy sentence might.

At the same time, statements that request the employee to change the way they do something to improve the outcome can easily become part of balanced dialogues. For instance, a supervisor can coach an employee toward a new approach by saying, “That’s a good approach Bill. Ask maintenance if they can come up and do that for you. It would free up your time if they handled it.” Or, “I’m not sure that’s going to work for everyone Bill, but I think you need to keep trying these types of ideas. I think you’ll hit on the right approach after a few attempts.” Or, “No, that won’t work, but try this. Jim made it work last week.”

The point is that the context of positive and negative input needs to be natural to eliminate employee and supervisory discomfort. The old positive reinforcement model that presents the supervisor as someone who has “changed their ways,” or “just back from charm school,” is uncomfortable and unnatural. Asking supervisors and managers to stop by and say something positive, or teaching management techniques that make supervisors nervous and reluctant to give employees corrective input on their performance, are not practical and they come across as contrived and manipulative.

This improved positive reinforcement model depends on the supervisor and the employee having a real dialogue—a discussion between two people about the work. It does not work if the supervisor stops by to tell the employee what to do. For most supervisors, initiating a conversation about practical issues about the days work is easy. If the supervisor gradually increases the content of the conversation to include some yeps, OKs, and other signals of approval then we have the beginning of positive reinforcement without embarrassment—a natural way of letting employees know they are doing the right things—a means of encouraging continued improvement and extra effort.