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Positive Reinforcement--It's a Relationship

Companies that have institutionalized positive reinforcement (R+) as a value outperform their competitors. It is not easy; most companies have reward and recognition programs in place, but that does not ensure that leaders, supervisors and managers know how to deliver positive reinforcement--that they know how to actually reinforce employees for value added behavior.

If the company has incentives, contingent compensation, bonuses, rewards, recognition, plaques and awards then what’s the big deal about R+. Aren’t all these things positive reinforcement? No, not really. The value of R+--the reason you want your leaders, managers and supervisors to understand what it is and how to practice it—is because R+ is a "real-time," management.If done properly, it is delivered almost immediately--in real time.It captures employee behavior—best practices, critical new ways of doing things—that may be lost if not identified and mentioned.

Behavior-based safety has become the favored process for helping organizations achieve the seemingly impossible objective—“0” injuries.One strength of behavior-based safety is that trained observers intermittently watch employees working—in real time—and give them feedback and R+ for doing their jobs safely. The data is clear; real-time feedback and R+ changes behavior better, faster than awards and bonuses for results.

Safety awards, incentives and bonuses have been criticized for creating cultures that encouraged employees to hide injuries, and near misses and created peer pressure to hide unsafe behavior.In business and industry, the same phenomenon can be observed in other performance areas. Rewards, incentives and bonuses have an impact on results, but sometimes the behaviors that employees engage in to achieve those results are questionable. If you want to achieve world class performance, you have to R+ employees in real time—right now. They need to know when their behavior is on the mark--if possible, while they are behaving--doing the thing that adds value.

Injury data tells us which unsafe behaviors lead to most of the injuries we see in the workplace; we also use those data to identify the safe behaviors—what employees should be doing to ensure they go home injury free. Similarly, product quality, customer service and productivity are can be optimized by critical employee behaviors. The specific critical behaviors vary by job and department, but employees know what they are and sometimes, the supervisors know.

The point is that awards and plaques happen way on down the line. Too late to R+ value-added behaviors that help the individual, the department and the company achieve best in class performance. Effective positive reinforcement requires the supervisor to be on the ground, where the action is; he or she has to see what employees are doing in order to deliver R+. Can you imagine a soccer coach trying to manage the team from an office? An award without a relationship is just a bribe.

In previous blogs, I have presented a model for delivering R+ that provides a gradual learning curve. Briefly, you talk with people while they are working, about the work; you mention things they have done (job behavior) that adds value, saves time, money, helps peers, etc; and, if and when you are comfortable you express your delight at their contribution. You are building a “reinforcing relationship.”

This is simple—this is easy—this is not uncomfortable for either the supervisor or the employee. Bottom line: Employees need to know what they are doing that works, enhances, improves—the product, the service, or customer satisfaction; they also need to know what they are not doing and what they are doing incorrectly. To get the best out of people, they have to have well rounded consequences—positive, negative, neutral—in accord with what their behavior.

Observing people at work has helped make the workplace safer; observing people at work can help employees become more productive. In each case, the feedback and R+ drives real-time, real world change and improvement.If we know all this and we know it works, why don’t all supervisors, managers and leaders spend time with their employees, observe their work, and give them feedback and R+? Why don’t supervisors talk to their employees about the work?

It all begins with leadership.Leaders communicate their values through their verbal behavior, the decisions they make—what they allow and do not permit—the priorities they pass down through the management hierarchy. If a leader believes that positive reinforcement is essential to business success, you will see him or her using it with their subordinates, making it a company value. Of course, the CEO will use positive reinforcement differently than a front line supervisor.But both have people who work for them and those people do things that deserve being mentioned.

A leader’s values are transformed into supervisory practices which in turn determine whether all valued employee behavior is identified, acknowledged and leveraged into the organizations knowledge-value stream.Instant recognition, real-time positive reinforcement instantly captures value—the asset value of doing things better, smarter, more creatively, cooperatively, more customer friendly—knowledge and practice capital that can be leveraged into competitive advantage and bottom line profitability. Leaders must evaluate, raise, bonus, promote and recognize the supervisors and managers for using positive reinforcement with their employees.

If an organization cannot capture valued employee work behavior, if the supervisor is not there to observe, discuss, and reinforce excellence and extra effort, then all you have is awards and plaques being handed out for results. All the behavior that led to those results, the behavior that needs to be achieved and added to everyones work practices--it's lost. Lost behavioral excellence is lost value...lost assets...lost intellectual property...lost profitability.

The company must do more than look at the end result and rewards outcomes. Leaders must encourage their managers and supervisors to actively engage employees during the work and positively reinforce valued added job behavior—in real time. The mantra: talk to people about the work; mention the good—behavior, actions that add value. Diplomatically mention things that they should do differently. The best reinforcer you can get at work is a productive discussion with your boss.