PHONE: +1 936.588.1130


Your comprehensive source of information using behavioral technology to improve safety and performance. Sign up to have new articles delivered straight to your inbox!


Positive Reinforcement is a Skill

If you read the available management literature, you soon run into a mandate that is seldom questioned: Praise your employees often; give them a “thank you” when they do a good job; recognize their efforts; use verbal positive reinforcement for value added behavior.Supervisors and managers are told unequivocally, that this is the best way to increase performance, enhance supervisory-employee relations, create employee engagement, and increase retention—to name a few.

Why then do climate surveys and 360° surveys consistently uncover contradictory evidence? Why do surveyed employees working in companies with formal and informal recognition systems feel they are not being “recognized” for their efforts?Survey data is inconsistent, but results (by reputable sources) report “78% of the employees surveyed said they had not been recognized by their supervisor for their work,” and “52% or the turnover in business and industry is related to supervisory-employee discord,” (irrespective of what exit interviews say.)

Most books and experts teach that manager and supervisory verbal reinforcement should be delivered personally, immediately, specifically, sincerely, and frequently.There are other rules, but the net effect is that verbal positive reinforcement is a management goal; managers and supervisors are told to “find a behavior that deserves reinforcement.”At face value, this sounds appropriate and desirable.Unfortunately, there are a number of factors that may make it counterproductive to walk around the workplace attempting to deliver positive verbal comments to employees.When the wrong conditions exist, attempts to reinforce can backfire. For instance:

  • The supervisor just returned from a training class and the employee is suspicious about the supervisor’s motives in “saying something nice.”
  • The employee and the supervisor have a poor relationship—a history of disagreement, bickering, or hostile interactions.
  • The supervisor has poor interpersonal skills and makes all his direct reports uncomfortable; his positive response sounds unnatural; he makes employees nervous.
  • The employee’s peers have behaved similarly but were not noticed; the one employee received undeserved attention, so resentment is created among the work group.
  • The employee who received a positive verbal comment is a favorite of the supervisor or a personal friend.
  • The employee who received positive verbal comment has better equipment or easier tasks than the other employees, so it is easy for him or her to excel.
  • An employee had to work twice as hard as the employee who received a positive verbal comment because his equipment broke or for some other reason he or she had to overcome several barriers just to get his job done, and he or she did not received a positive verbal comment.
  • The employee who received a positive verbal comment just came back from time off for an injury; the other employees think he or she was malingering.
  • The supervisor has never verbally delivered a positive verbal comment to anyone before and has just started doing it; why are they doing it now? Employees are suspicious.
  • The behavior the supervisor comments about does not qualify for acknowledgment in the eyes of the other employees.
  • A few minutes before the supervisor stopped to deliver a positive verbal comment to the employee, the employee had been engaged in an inappropriate, unsafe, or destructive behavior.
  • The employee who received positive verbal comment for a behavior had a poor work history.
  • The employee who received positive verbal comment is the best performer in the group.
  • The employee who received positive verbal comment is embarrassed by public attention (other employees saw him receiving the comment.)
  • The supervisor’s positive verbal comment sounded rehearsed, practiced, and unnatural.
  • The employee who received a positive verbal comment is young and the older employees suspect favoritism.
  • The company is about to go through some layoffs and the employees suspect that whoever the supervisor makes positive verbal comments to is not going to be laid off; so they develop animosity towards that employee.
  • One supervisor delivered a positive verbal comment to an employee but a supervisor from another department just corrected the same employee for an inappropriate behavior.
  • The employees have heard “thank you” so many times that they no longer notice it.The phrase has lost its meaning.
  • The employees have seen all the supervisors trying to say positive things to their direct reports; this communicates to them that it is a job requirement and therefore has no value.
  • The employee who received a positive verbal comment has been disciplined several times within the last few months.
  • The employee who a received positive verbal comment is perceived by his peers to be a slacker who should be disciplined for poor performance.
  • The employee does not appreciate the supervisors positive verbal comments about his or her work because the supervisor does not talk to the employee about the work frequently or indepth enough for the employee to respect the supervisor's opinion about his or her work behavior.
  • The behavior that the supervisory chose to make a positive verbal comment about was a fluke; everyone who knows the job and what is really going on knows that it was a rare event, so the supervisors behavior is considered meaningless and symptomatic of his or her disinterest in the people and their work.
  • The company has several types of tangible incentives for performance and the employees consider the supervisor's efforts trivial and unnecessary; they want cash and gift certificates.
  • The company has jerked them around for years--making promises, surprising them with layoffs and pay changes. They don't trust anyone in management. Employees receive positive verbalizations as tactics intended to set them up for something negative about to happen.

I hope you are beginning to develop a sense of how the context—the circumstances, preceding conditions, history, situational factors, peer factors, supervisory interpersonal skills, company culture, and supervisory-employee interpersonal history coalesces to make the act of “wandering around the workplace trying to catch someone doing something good,” a risky and perhaps counterproductive activity. Any one of these items can negate the value of a manager or supervisor's attempt to positively reinforce an employee with a positive verbal comment.

In addition, when any or several of the preceding factors exist it is reasonable to assume that the supervisor's efforts will create an even greater relationship problem; it will throw fuel on an already incendiary situation. When the context is not supportive, attempts to reinforce employees with intermittent "stop by" visits are more likely punitive; the supervisor's unnatural act is aversive and the effect on employee morale, performance and engagement is also negative.

I suspect that employees in Fortune 500 companies are aware that their company has a corporate reward and recognition strategy, the purpose being to create a nurturing environment that “engages” the employee in the company’s values and goals—that indirectly motivates the employee to strive to perform.These employees have experienced countless celebrations, award dinners, award ceremonies, the delivery of jackets and hats for performance and the attempts by managers and supervisors to “treat them well.”

Most of these systems include recognition for “employee of the month or year; best performer; most improved; length of service; attendance; sales performance; suggestions; safety performance; retirement; and performance above and beyond.In addition, managers and supervisors are being held accountable for “reinforcing and recognizing” employee effort in order to elicit discretionary effort from employees.

Many company environments are saturated with positives and the employees have habituated to all this niceness.So much so, that they either no longer notice the companies attempts, they take it for granted (no longer see it as contingent upon their actually doing something exceptional), or they become cynical and scornful of this riotous facade.They see all the cash, certificates and merchandise as entitlements.Positive management attention for contribution becomes meaningless.

What is the solution?How do we reinforce and recognize employees in a meaningful way; how do we do we create retention and job satisfaction in a manner that achieves the objective—to show employees that that their efforts do not go unnoticed—that they make a difference?The answers are here, and here, and here.