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Reinforcing Work Dialogs: The Emotional Catalyst for Employee Engagement

I begin this blog with a declaration that I intend to validate throughout the body of this entry: The key to employee engagement is emotional commitment which is in turn most closely linked to discretionary effort.Rewards, transactional positive reinforcement (supervisor occasionally using verbal reinforcement), and incentives in general do not change behavior in the long term; the biochemistry of the brain—serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters—the chemicals of employee engagement, of emotions and learning—are most effectively catalyzed through ongoing manager activities and attributes.Reinforcing work dialogs, which in turn build reinforcing manager-employee relationships, are the most effective means of eliciting employee emotional commitment to the job and the organization.

In 2004, the Corporate Leadership Council published a study—Driving Employee Performance and Retention through Engagement: A Quantitative Analysis of the Effectiveness of Employee Engagement Strategies.They surveyed 50,000 employees in 59 organizations within 27 countries.These data support the results of many other studies on employee engagement: Individual acts of reward and reinforcement do not compensate for a negative relationship with one’s organization or one’s manager.The best way to achieve emotional commitment from employees is through the creation of an emotionally nurturing organizational environment—a “reinforcing environment,” a history of reinforcement--a reinforcing relationship.

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Reinforcing Work Dialogs the Key to Engagement

A meta-analysis of survey results from America and Europe reveals that about 30% of all employees are actively “engaged” with their companies. The engaged employees are the ones who provide the discretionary effort. The “disengaged,” are doing their jobs, but often just that—doing their jobs.

A Hay Group study found that engaged office workers were up to 43% more productive and that companies with high engagement scores were much more profitable. Key drivers of engagement of interest to anyone who has been reading my blogs are listed below. They are interesting, because they can be accomplished directly and indirectly through reinforcing work dialogs: 

  • Employee perceptions of job importance
  • Regular feedback and dialog with superiors
  • Quality of working relationships with peers, superiors, and subordinates
  • Effective internal employee communication
  • Employee clarity of job expectations
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Participative Positive Reinforcement: The Untapped Profit in Employee Behavior

I have summarized some of the benefits of natural reinforcement--weaving reinforcing statements into regular work discussions. The last couple of blogs have been about how to integrate positive reinforcement into your company's culture with a planned initiative. As you review the distinctions I have made about my technique compared to traditional methods, keep in mind that I am presenting a method that ensures your management team uses positive reinforcement--this is not about rewards and recognition systems.

When I state below that traditional positive reinforcement practices do not link positive reinforcement to organizational performance, I am speaking specifically about verbal reinforcement, not awards and t-shirts. Reward and recognition services and products providers proclaim with much fanfare how rewards and recognition drives profitability. They assume, as do most readers, that positive reinforcement is being delivered in this melee of awards and cash incentives. It says something about how well external inducements incent people to contribute, but it says nothing about whether any manager or supervisor is positively reinforcing employee value-added behavior in real time--in the workplace--as it is happening.

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Positive Reinforcement the Way Nature Intended

A “total rewards” culture—an organizational culture that engages all employees—that enables optimum employee performance potential, is impossible if leaders, managers and supervisors do not have reinforcing relationships with their subordinates. A “reinforcing relationship,” is the result of empowering dialogs between employees and supervisors; it is an on-going, egalitarian conversation between two members of a team—equally committed to the best interest of the other and their company.

A reinforcing relationship evolves when two people work together—each committed to facilitating the other’s success.They interact productively, with respectful statements that express regard for the feelings of the other. Mutual dignity and respect are projected in their words and phrases. A reinforcing relationship is the product of two people talking “with” each other, not “at” each other.

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