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Positive Reinforcement Strategies for Generation Y

There appears to be a lot of interest in positive reinforcement these days—more than ever. I think the world of work is finally ready—the stage is set and the cast is in place. The power of positive reinforcement—is ready to be experienced.The right generation of employees has arrived.

The book I wrote a couple of years ago Praise for Profit: How Rewards and Recognition are Demotivating American’s Workforce, was intended as a wakeup call to corporations that were blindly, carelessly and sometimes irresponsibly overusing “things” to replace thoughtful management practices. One danger of using incentives and tangible rewards is that they can become addictive to management; overuse and abuse are likely because these systems takes the place of personal reinforcement—something that many supervisors find uncomfortable and try to avoid. When the landscape is carpeted with money and merchandise, management depends on these inducements—these incentives, to manage human performance—while they go off to do other things they are more comfortable doing.

In the past, many managers and supervisors abandoned active supervision to the companies reward systems because they were uncomfortable delivering positive reinforcement the way most training classes presented it. The discomfort was created because most of the employees they were attempting to supervise, were baby boomers—inheritors of the legacy of the 20th century’s work ethic. Positive statements about one’s work were not comfortably received by this generation. Matter of fact, if your boss said something good about your work, you felt sinful if you caught yourself enjoying the attention.

I had to coach many supervisors using a specific formula for delivering positive reinforcement. Supervisors who were shy, introverted, nervous, task-oriented, insecure, lack social skills, perfectionistic, impatient—for them, I advanced an incremental model, a graduated method for becoming comfortable with the practice of acknowledging employee value-added behavior. Even if you had none of these traits, the last generation of workers was not an easy bunch to reinforce—even by gifted supervisors—those who had “the knack.”

Irrespective of your feelings about whether an employee “deserves” being appreciated, rewarded or celebrated, the unannealed truth is that whenever an employee does anything that is innovative, solves an old problem, identifies a new problem, saves the company money, helps a coworker, improves the product, the process, the service and makes a happier customer—well, someone needs to point that out to that employee. Someone needs to point that out to everyone, because it adds value—it represents knowledge capital that needs to be captured, communicated and repeated whenever the opportunity is right. Other employees need to be doing the same thing. If everyone adds value, then the value of the company increases as does the bottom line.

Here is what I call positive reinforcement. “Jim, when you told me about that equipment problem, I got maintenance on it right away. I bet we saved 3 hours of downtime.” How hard was that? Can any supervisor do it? If he or she can talk, they can make a factual observation about something that was done well. Not only will the employee do that same kind of thing in the future, everyone in the department will do the same thing.

I attempted to get introverted, uncomfortable supervisors involved in positive reinforcement not by telling them to “positively reinforce someone for doing a good job,” but by just taking the time to point out to an employee what went right--what they did that helped. It’s not flattery—it’s fact. You did something that saves the company money, helped a coworker, and I’m going to tell you about it; end of story.

Getting supervisors talking is a good step; after they have pointed out a few things that employees have done right, sometimes they lose control and start adding the personal touch; they get all emotional and add statements like, “when you found that code error yesterday, you saved us about 2 days of trouble shooting. That was great!” You would be surprised how many managers who are reluctant to use positive reinforcement in the beginning become enthusiastic if you get them started right. The Y generation is going to make it easier for supervisors to learn how to use R+, because the new generation actually wants the attention.

Most corporations have codified reward and recognition practices into the company HR manual. Leaders, managers, and supervisors are expected to make their employees aware that they are improving, achieving, innovating, identifying problems, solving problems, and going the extra mile for the product, the service, and the customer. The task of reinforcing your employees may even be in many supervisors’ job descriptions. As a manager, you know that your performance evaluations, bonus, raise—perhaps your career is going to be influenced by your ability to keep your employees happy through the use of recognition and reinforcement.

Baby boomers were fairly consistent in their response to attempts by supervisors to say positive things about value-added work behaviour (I know there are some UK readers of the blog, and I didn’t want you to think that I am not responsive to your sensibilities). Boomers were conditioned by parenting and the 20th century work culture to think that money was the only reinforcer they should expect. Generation Y is different, and I will go into more detail in Part II of this blog.