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Positive Reinforcement is a Real-Time Phenomenon

There are some critical misunderstandings that cause a great deal of confusion when discussing different ways of acknowledging employee performance. The first is the reciprocal use of the term “positive reinforcement” and the word “recognition.” Positive reinforcement describes the outcome of an interaction between manager and employee that occurs while the employee is doing or saying something (behaving) of value. It describes a real time relationship between something an employee is saying or doing and an immediate positive experience or effect created by a management verbal behavior.

You lift the fork with filet mignon to your mouth and the lifting of the fork is positively reinforced by two immediate consequences: 1) the food gets to your mouth; 2) It taste delicious. So the behavior of “lifting the fork toward my mouth” has been positively reinforced. That’s what’s called a natural positive reinforcer; it was just you and the environment. No one else participated in your experience.

Now if you had a coach, parent, or supervisor and their objective was to get you to eat more, then when they observed you lifting the fork to your mouth and chewing the steak, they would say something like, “Excellent Jerry. You lifted the fork very smoothly to your mouth without spilling any of the food. You will regain all the weight you lost during chemotherapy very quickly.” This is known as social positive reinforcement and this is what leaders, managers, supervisors, coaches, and parents are supposed to be doing to elicit high levels of productive behavior from others.

You can see that to positively reinforce someone for a behavior, you have to be there when the behavior is happening—you have to see it, or in the case of verbal behavior you have to see lips move and words pronounced. Leaders, managers and supervisors cannot positively reinforce work behavior unless they are in the workplace—where employees are doing their jobs. An added requirement is that your verbal comments have value to the person whose behavior you are “attempting” to positively reinforce. If the employee doesn’t like you then the behavior you are attempting to encourage may not increase in frequency, and it may even decrease in frequency.

Recognition (in the context of appreciation for performance) is the presentation of a comment or a symbolic award or something that commemorates and acknowledges someone’s contribution. It cannot be for one behavior; it is usually delivered for a collection of behaviors that culminated in some favorable result. You don’t give someone a plaque for lifting a fork to their mouth.

Recognition can be verbal, but it still refers to a performance result—not just one solitary behavior. Someone might say, “The boss finally recognized Jerry’s hard work; yesterday he told him his quick change orders were really making our customers happy.” Then a comment about that might be “Jerry was recognized for his hard work.”

An incentive is not a positive reinforcer. Incentive is “something” that has been presented to an employee because they achieved some outcome (result) for the company. The purpose of using incentives is to provide the employee with something they want or need in exchange for increased effort—better performance. The incentive (an IPod), like recognition products, is based on employee results. Incentives are not delivered in real time—as a specific behavior is occurring. Incentive products are rewards for good performance. The word reward is most appropriately used when referring to money or tangible items presented to employees based upon some performance achievement.

The sloppy, undifferentiated use of these words seems harmless, but it really is a deterrent to effective employee engagement. To say, “We positively reinforced Jerry with a trip to Bermuda for reaching his sales target,” is incorrect. You can say, “We rewarded Jerry…”, or “We recognized Jerry’s sales performance…”, but you cannot say that you positively reinforced Jerry.

You could say, “While Jerry was on the phone with a customer, I heard him ask the customer if she was interested in the sweaters we had on special this week. I gave him a big smile and a thumbs-up immediately.” In this instance you positively reinforced “a” sales behavior—assuming that your smile and thumbs-up are positive things for Jerry. If he hates your guts and his behavior is not strengthened, we would say that—in spite of the fact that you attempted to positively reinforce Jerry—your smile and thumbs-up was a big turn-off to him. Matter of fact, he is telling all the other sales agents to be sure to avoid up-selling because it gets your attention and you may smile at them.

Management’s attempt to positively reinforce valuable performance behavior often fails for personal reasons. The employee doesn’t like the manager or think his or her positive verbal comment is scripted—it is being used in a calculating manner to manipulate the employee into doing more. Positive comments that are obviously insincere decrease employee engagement and create relationship problems.

So how do we ensure that employees receive positive reinforcement for the specific behaviors that are aligned with business success—the critical behaviors that increase profitability or safe behaviors that keep employees from being injured? The best vehicle for the successful delivery of positive reinforcement can be referred to as “monitoring”—checking with employees to see how thing are going, asking about needed resources, eliminating barriers and discussing priorities.

Active interest—stopping to talk with employees about work, give feedback and collect information—provides opportunities to make positive comments about the employee’s performance—natural comments that arise in the context of the conversation. Given that you have created a relationship of mutual respect, your positive verbal comments about the behavior you see can positively reinforce that behavior.

Research results tell us that leaders who show active interest in employee job behaviors seem to get results irrespective of other factors. That is, supervisors and managers who check on their employees, look at their work and discuss their performance—making positive comments when appropriate and corrective comments in a balanced, give-and-take dialogue—have the highest performing departments.