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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.

The games, the defensiveness and posturing are left behind; supervisor and employee adopt a new tact. They talk about the work like two carpenters starting to frame out an addition on a house—“I’ll do this, and you can do that and we’ll have this baby up in no time.”


You ask, “How do you sort through the history and bad habits—the years of antagonistic saber-rattling and ineffective dialog?” The only answer is that you start wherever you are. Select a third party, non-biased individual to interview managers and employees. Build a list of strengths—common interpersonal tactics that work, that everyone likes. Good practices they already see. All of these behaviors will not reside in one person; between all your supervisors, there will be a long list of positive verbal habits—verbal behavior that employees like—behaviors they want to see more off.

Similarly, develop a list of positive behaviors for employees.What do employees say or do that supervisors would like to see more of—that their coworkers appreciate—positive, value added behaviors.Do not start out focusing on what you do not want people to say or do. Start with a list of best practices—on both sides—best supervisory interaction habits (words and phrases) and best employee interaction habits. Here is a list of potential positives, verbal behaviors we want supervisors to adopt, when talking to employees-

  • Start your discussion with a safety briefing—reminders, alerts, or questions about any concerns the employee has
  • Mention something that the employee did to help, improvement, assist, overcome a hurdle, help a coworker, an extra effort, volunteering—add value
  • Ask you if employee needs any help or resources to do his or her job properly?
  • Provide the employee with information about the status of the department, the plant, or his or her work group—an alert about any new or changing circumstance
  • Listen attentively to employee comments—actively listen
  • Be tactful in the way you talk to the employee—listen attentively, let the employee talk without interrupting; responded in an appropriate tone to their comments
  • Provide follow-up information about any action you committed to

This is just a sample.The list of items you collect through interviews may be extremely long, but you can prioritize them based on frequency or other criteria. Once when I was doing a positive reinforcement skill workshop for a large petroleum company in the city of Ascot in the UK, one of the managers was extremely frustrated. He had a history of being aloof, impatient and overly analytical with his employees. He felt that he was beyond hope.

I understood how he felt, because it is difficult for me to learn new habits. Trying to keep a list of items in your head, and use them constructively during a conversation is not easy.So I gave him a model to use—a metaphor with which he could identify emotionally and help him stay on the right path.

I simply said to him, “Whenever you are talking with anyone, particularly with your employees, pretend that you are talking to the Queen.Use the words, tone, inflection and demeanor that you would use with her.” It sounds a bit contrived, but if you consider its practical effect, it works wonderfully. In a follow-up phone conversation two months later, he told me that this worked quite well for him. Many other strategies had failed.

His employees began to react immediately and positively. He said, “I said a lot of the same things—covered the same topics—but, I found myself wording them differently.I knew I was being more tactful, and I was doing it without a text book beside me.It seemed quite natural. After a few days, my wife asked me if I was having an affair—because my behavior had changed—for the better.”

This approach to improving ones conversational style works well, but one must choose an auspicious partner to ensure the proper effect. Of necessity, your fantasy partner needs to be someone of great stature or significance in your life; the Pope, the President--someone who would cause you to choose your words carefully. Whomever one chooses, it is a learning device that works well to prompt the right behavior—to get you started in the right direction.

Design the Initiative

After the objective third party surveys and interviews all levels of employees information has been collected, prioritize the list of interactive behaviors and dialog topics until you have no more than 5-10 items. This list will become your measurement system; numerical values can be assigned to each item.It will become a quantitative measurement system that will allow you to track your progress against your baseline.The items on the list should be described behaviorally, meaning that they are stated in a way that leaves no room for doubt as to whether they did or did not occur.Based on the description of the behavior, observers can confidently record behavioral frequency without disagreement.

When finished, there should be a list of about 5 behaviors for managers and supervisors and at least 3 behaviors for employees—all of which were derived from the interviews. They should be positive, value-added behaviors. We want to start out by doing more of what will make us successful—build on strengths. Working on behavioral strengths, creates a positive vision of where we are going with our efforts. When positive behaviors go up in frequency the number of negative behaviors seem to decrease commensurately.

During the week, there will be instances where employees and their supervisors will have a chance to have a dialog—an opportunity to talk, not just a brief connection in passing, but a few minutes to focus on a broader range of topics. After the dialog, both the supervisor and the employee will record whether any of the behaviors on the improvement cards occurred.For instance, the employee will check off the behaviors on the list they did and will put a mark down as a record. Then, the employee will check off the supervisor’s behaviors

Similarly, the supervisor will check whether they did the behaviors on their list and whether the employee did any or all of the things on the employee list. It is an honor system, one I’ve found works very well.

Each department should have an employee coordinator, a person selected from each major department during the survey phase, someone who helped develop the lists and actively participated in the process of identifying and organizing the key behaviors. That person will help implement the process moving forward. They will collect the weekly data and provide feedback about employee opinions and involvement.The person will be a champion for the process and help it succeed.

Training and Practice

Between the survey and the kickoff of the initiative, managers, supervisors and senior managers will go through a special training class that allows them to practice performance dialogs. The behaviors that need to be practiced have been identified, and that sets the stage for supervisors and designated frontline employees to practice and receive positive feedback from a third party coach.More about this in the next blog.

Kickoff the Initiative

After evaluating the environment and its readiness for change—after the interviews and identification of the key success behaviors, then the training and practice—the organization is prepared for success. No surprise, no hidden agendas, no unreasonable expectations; the group is sold on the process, the path and the objectives.

The kickoff is about gathering your employees together to review the objectives of the change initiative and to set positive expectations. There is not need for rhetoric; they have heard the cheerleading before and had some bad associations with initiatives that were accompanied by too much hoopla. Discuss the lists of behaviors that employees and supervisors (all management) will be working to increase.Go over the procedure for self-reporting and identify the departmental representative that will collect the weekly data. Since they were involved in the survey part of the initiative they have a sense of the value of its objectives and methods.

Making positive reinforcement a habit--part of the organizational culture, is accelerated in a business unit where upper management (or department management) brings all the employees together from the very beginning to communicate and more importantly to involve everyone in the process. Explain everything and give everyone a chance to talk.Allow frontline employees to discuss the process that preceded the kickoff—the surveying and organizing of the survey results. Let them know the name of the individual in their department who will be coordinating the data retrieval and that the process and its results will be transparent.

Operations performance—quality, productivity, service—any performance measures in place will be reviewed and tracked parallel to the reinforcement improvement data cards.Overall organizational performance should go up in direct proportion to the progress of the reinforcement initiative. Supervisory-employee dialogs are going to drive precise recognition—recognition for the critical behaviors that drive profitability. This is the vital performance link that has been missing—unreachable with old management models. This is a positive reinforcement strategy for the new world of work.