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Positively Reinforcing the Highly Motivated Employee

Most American companies are competing to attract and retain talent. Specific management, reward and compensation strategies are directed toward “high performers.” There has been some confusion expressed in management literature about the best way to manage highly motivated people. It is generally accepted that micromanagement constrains their performance potential and thwarts their discretionary initiative.

Surveys and interviews with high performers reveal that most of these employees are internally driven to achieve, and that the developmental conditions and experiences that create their profile can not be duplicated in the work environment.It is clear that contingent compensation, pay-for-performance, and other performance based rewards fit their performance capabilities and incent them to reach their performance potential.

Supervising high achievers—attempting to positively reinforce them in particular—can be challenging. Self-motivated people usually do not need much supervision; they seldom need coaching, mentoring, technical help, etc. They need resources and flexibility; the rules, policies, procedures, systems and processes in place may constrain their potential. Organizational structures and systems that provide the average performer with guidance and support, may serve to frustrate high performers.

Books and articles seldom distinguish the difference between positive reinforcement and rewards. Rewards are tangible and symbolic articles that are used to celebrate results--outcomes—goals reached, quantifiable accomplishments. We reward performance with a luncheon to celebrate tenure, a plaque to honor a sales goal, a company meeting to commemorate an improvement team’s achievement.

Positive reinforcement is usually something verbal that happens either in real-time or very shortly after a behavior.Behavioral science has a precise definition of positive reinforcement, but in the world of work, the term is usually not distinguished from the word “reward.” We use positive reinforcement to describe a manager or supervisor’s effort to verbally communicate something positive to an employee about what they have done—some behavior.

What one employee considers positive, another may consider negative. For instance, highly motivated people—people who are proud that their performance is self-driven—might respond negatively to a positive statement by their supervisor. Making a comment about the quality of someone’s work implies primacy in a hierarchy; it implies that the one making the evaluation is in control.In effect, a high-performing, self-driven employee might perceive the following statement negatively—“John, I really like the work you did on that report; top-notch. Keep up the good work.”

The statement sounds innocuous, but it communicates that one person has the authority to evaluate another--one is the boss. Many high performers do not need a “boss.” They need someone to provide them with the resources to excel. They need someone to run interference for them—someone to help them with the constraints of corporate bureaucracies and outdated processes—barriers to high performance, innovation, creativity, short cuts and efficiencies.

High performers are sensitive to anyone trying to take the credit for their achievement. Their performance is their identity—it is who they are. They do not want anyone to think that they were “managed,” that their accomplishments were “motivated,” by someone else.They know that their own internal motivation is the driving force behind their performance. Any comment that identifies their special contribution needs to be delivered without using the word “good.”

A comment like,”John, would you explain the way you did that to the task team?” or “John, Allison is having a problem with that; would you show her how you do it,” or “John, you’ve developed a unique procedure; would you tell me how you do it so I can share it with the team?” If you are in the first few steps of developing your reinforcement skills, you can us succinct understatement to effectively do the job. Words like—“That’s unique; never seen it done that way; looks like a shortcut; that could save us some time; very tidy; takes a good bit of waste out of the process; that will work,” leave the credit for the extra effort in the hands of the performer and do not preempt his or her prerogative.

Positive reinforcement uses language—words, phrases, meanings, connotation, and emotion—as its primary tool. The subtle discriminations in the preceding examples apply to other types of performers and other work contexts. The language you use to reinforce a white collar employee may be broadly different than the words you would use to reinforce a blue collar worker.

A union environment requires a different approach than a non-union, a steel mill requires that you use different wording than a corporate office. It is obvious that you would use different words to reinforce a librarian than you would to reinforce a car salesman, but relevant differences exist within workgroups, departments, business sites and corporations. The 5 step, self-development process I presented in my last blog is easy to use with widely variable employee reinforcement requirements.

In my next blog, I will talk about Generation Y. Employees between 18 and 30 have a unique set of presenting characteristics that reflect the era in which they were raised. They resemble the highly-motivated performers from previous eras. Many employers complain that the new era of entry level employees are lazy, self-indulgent, self-centered and irresponsible. My observation is that every era has employees that fit that category. Smarter companies have developed techniques for recruiting the best and that leaves the selection pool with—well, what’s left.

The key point of this blog is to advise leaders, managers, and supervisors to put positive reinforcement tactics on their meeting agenda. You need to capture positive reinforcement practices and build a knowledge and practice foundation for your company, culture, and employees. Skill-building around how to use positive reinforcement selectively with different employees will pay off in performance and retention.

Although most companies are building “reward and recognition” cultures with the purpose of hiring and retaining the best talent, surveys and exit interviews still point to supervision as the key factor in maintaining job satisfaction. Employees will not leave a company if they have a supervisor they like—all things being equal. They may leave for more challenge, more freedom, a promotion or more money—they may.But, many of us have had to work for a supervisor that made our lives miserable, so if we find one we like—one who knows our value and shows it—we are inclined to stay where we are.

People want to be appreciated, but not with heavy handed, scripted positive reinforcement. Customize the positive reinforcement to the employee—that’s the best way to communicate the organizations respect for the individual’s value.