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Participative Positive Reinforcement: The Power of Peer Reinforcement

Questions about how to positively reinforce someone (usually a question about what to say) and what to reinforce (what behavior should you reinforce) are frequently Googled.We arrive at our confusion by honest means—being reared in societies that have only recently evolved toward humanism; societies in which the model for management, parenting, and governing has been punitive; “spare the rod and spoil the child.”We tend to focus on the negative; on what is wrong—what’s been done improperly.Human history is one of grudging sparseness toward human accomplishment, manifesting a laconic reticence about commenting on the positive things others have done.

In the 1953 movie, Hobson’s Choice, Charles Laughton plays Henry Hobson, the overbearing and autocratic owner of a bootmaker’s shop in 19th century Lancashire. In one scene, Mr. Hobson castigates one of his best customers (in her absence, of course) because she told the man who made her boots (“the finest I [sic] have ever put on my feet") how well he had done.After she leaves, the enraged Mr. Hobson erupts to say, “Doesn’t she know better than to praise a workman to his face.”

As anachronistic as that sounds, this attitude lies at the core of 20th century management practices.The apprentice that worked for a master craftsman became a frontline employee in industrialized Europe—a technological evolution that occurred over several hundred years.Humanistic management practices did not co-evolve with industrialization.Victorian era factory workers were harshly ministered by their “overseers.”

Approval and attention (positive reinforcement) from “respected and liked” authority figures influence us to do positive things—at work, at school, and on the playing field.When we don’t like the person in charge because they have treated us disrespectfully or unfairly, we get our positive reinforcement from other sources--from the work (many of us like what we do) or from our peers (socialization is the only reinforcer many people have at work.)

Although we used to assume that “difficult” managers (mean, threatening, eccentric, moody, perfectionistic, or hard to please micromanagers) exacted high levels of performance from their subordinates, we now understand that their style creates barriers to employee engagement, resistance to change, suppresses creativity and idea generation, and elicits anti-social behavior toward the organization and management.Many employees find it positively reinforcing to do things (surreptitiously of course) that aggravate disliked supervisors, and their peers will generally encourage them for doing so ( peers are reinforcing undesirable behavior.)

Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) is traditionally implemented by training managers and supervisors in how to deliver feedback and positive reinforcement.In an OBM initiative, management is expected to change employee behavior (increase the frequency of value-added, discretionary performance behavior, and decrease the frequency of inappropriate, counterproductive behavior) by positively reinforcing employee key improvement behaviors and ignoring (using extinction strategically, that is purposefully ignoring employee behavior that is causing social or job performance problems) unwanted employee behavior.

It’s a good plan, and it works well when the supervisor has a reinforcing relationship with the employee and when the employee’s peers are supportive of the supervisor (they are “engaged” in the organizations best interests).Unfortunately, since most organizations do not hold supervisors accountable for their interpersonal style (measure, monitor and manage its quality), many supervisors do not have positive interaction histories with employees and therefore cannot positively reinforce them.

For instance, if a well-liked supervisor passes by your workstation, holds up a piece of paper, points to it with a big grin, and gives you a thumbs up—you would probably smile back, have a brief rush of positive feelings, and go back to work.

If a distrusted, disliked supervisor did the same thing, you would probably look perplexed and feel the same way.You might ask one of your co-workers, “What’s old Jenkins up to? He just pointed to a piece of paper and grinned at me.I guess he gave me a bad performance review and he’s gloating.”

“That idiot doesn’t even know that the cam adjuster on #24 is about to go.When it does, we’ll get a couple of hour’s downtime.You still owe me for that last game of Gin.”

I am not demonizing frontline employees.When their supervisor does not reinforce them, they will find a way to get positive reinforcement—attention and approval—usually from their co-workers.They will often do and say things that are antithetical to the best interests of their department and the company—and, they will not feel guilty about it.When we feel mistreated by management, we feel justified in our actions.Passive aggression—ignoring opportunities to circumvent a problem or add value—does not conflict with our work ethic.

Participative Positive Reinforcement© avoids many of the problems associated with management-driven OBM initiatives.By involving employees in the process—from the very beginning—they become owners, stakeholders in the outcomes.There are definite advantages to sharing the knowledge—orienting every employee to the benefits of behavioral principles.Interestingly, non-management employees are far less jaded about behavioral causation than their managers.

Although frontline employees have been the targets of many disparate and theoretically conflicting behavior change initiatives (that’s what “motivational” programs are; their purpose is to change employee behavior—increase the frequency of productive behavior—decrease the frequency of non-productive behavior), their minds have not been anesthetized by conflicting management theorems.They are sensitive to the psychological value of positive reinforcement.They are apt pupils and eager to play a meaningful role in something that interests them—something they can use at home and in their lives generally.Many see Participative OBM as an opportunity for personal growth.

The point is, employees can become productive partners in an OBM process—positively reinforcing each other and their supervisors and managers for positive behavior change—for performance improvement.Partnering with management strengthens relationships at all levels, increases the frequency and relevance of positive reinforcement, and engages everyone in a mutual effort to serve the customer, build better products, and increase profitability.

Less than 10 years ago, most organizations believed that it was up to supervisors to manage employee safety, and that the safety director was responsible for employee injuries—the same kind of expectations created by a traditional OBM’s approach to positive reinforcement and employee behavior management.Then, behavior based safety (BBS) came along; all employees were given meaningful roles in safety management.Safety management became participative; managers and employees partnered in the endeavor to ensure everyone went home injury-free. Positive reinforcement’s potential to improve performance and discretionary effort will best be fulfilled when all employees are part of the OBM initiative--when positive reinforcement is practiced participatively.