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The Case for Participative Positive Reinforcement

In the last 30 years, I’ve implemented performance improvement initiatives in a wide variety of business environments. My objective has been to train leadership, managers, and supervisors to apply behavioral technology—behavior change strategies derived from 70 years of scientific research on human behavior. Prior to implementing behavioral technology in business and industry, I had worked in a mental hospital for several years using behavioral principles to help patients decrease the frequency of problem behaviors (behaviors that were seen by the public as “crazy,” inappropriate or destructive) and increase the frequency of productive behaviors (behaviors that allowed them to socialize appropriately, hold down a job and function at home and in their community.)

Most of our patients had previously been treated in hospitals that used traditional “cures” for problems like debilitating depression, anxiety, phobias, and psychotic episodes. The patients had been in therapy with psychiatrists (the approach they use is caricatured and satirized on television and the movies where the patient lies on the couch and the physician sits in a chair taking notes) without achieving significant improvement. Statistically, our hospital was the most successful in the state; we had the best rate of patients discharged back to their community. Patients changed their behavior, left the hospital to function in the community, and very few had to return to the hospital.

Interestingly, one behavioral problem seemed to be present in almost every patient and in every clinical diagnosis; our patients had a problem talking and listening effectively with others. Many patients would not socialize at all—others would socialize, but they would say inappropriate things and turn others off. We see some of the same behavioral problems in organizational settings; some would humorously comment that human interactions at work are just as crazy, and it is hard to defend that allegation. We have all seen some pretty inappropriate verbal interactions in meetings and elsewhere.

It is worthwhile to compare the results of the process we used to change behavior in the hospital with its results when used in business and industry to change employee behavior. Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) is the term that applies to the systematic application of behavioral principles to organizational behavior and performance improvement. Positive reinforcement is the touchstone for OBM’s application; it is the overarching principle that differentiates OBM from other organizational change initiatives. The problems that are similar include:

  • Socializing—interactions between supervisors and employees; ineffective supervisory styles contribute to many organizational performance problems
  • Total involvement—everyone should be part of the solution. Everyone should be facilitating change by designing the solution and applying positive reinforcement to value added behaviors

When we applied behavioral principles in the hospital, we trained everyone—all the staff, at every level—in behavioral technology. That technology included: 

  • Pinpointing patient behaviors that were causing the patient a problem; pinpointing behaviors for each patient that would help them function better and become a productive person back in their community
  • Listing those behaviors for each patient on their “improvement plan”
  • Observing them as they talked and interacted with staff and other patients the counting and recording the frequency of behaviors on their plan(checking off on their behavioral improvement plan)
  • Providing them with regular, timely quantitative feedback on the frequency of appropriate behavior
  • Positively reinforcing the patient—immediately, in real time, in the moment—when we saw them doing any of the behaviors listed on their improvement plans

Our remarkable success at this hospital was due to two equally important factors. The first was that we were using behavioral technology; we were systematically, precisely applying positive reinforcement to the specific behaviors that would make each patient successful. Secondly, everyone was part of the process; clinical assistants with 10th grade educations had received one day of training in behavioral principles and were effectively applying behavioral technology with patients. Everyone participated in the weekly meetings where we reviewed each patients progress, tabulated the frequency of each behavior being observed and recorded, discussed the addition or deletion of behaviors, and discussed the frequency of positive reinforcement being delivered. In fact, the patients would help each other by purposefully reinforcing the behaviors on one another’s improvement plan. Everyone was participating and contributing to the success of the patients.

In retrospect, the thing that everyone in this environment understood was how to pinpoint behavior that would make the patient successful—get the patient out of the hospital and back into the community. For instance, if a patient was withdrawn and debilitated by an inability to socialize, all staff (and other patients) would positively reinforce Mr. Jones for:

  • Smiling as he passed another patient or staff
  • Greeting another patient or staff while passing
  • Approaching a group of patients or staff who were talking and standing or sitting with the group
  • Interjecting a comment while in the group
  • Initiating an interaction with staff or another patient
  • Inviting a staff member or patient to play cards, ping pong, or other recreational activity

This worked extremely well. Even the most withdrawn patients were soon out on the unit socializing with the other patients.

As I started using Applied Behavior Analysis (OBM) in business and industry, I experienced immediate success; there were dramatic changes in quality, waste, productivity, and customer service. My fellow consultants achieved similar results. Unfortunately, I began to see that after we left a client the systematic application of the principles were eventually abandoned; sustainability was a definite problem. I began to suspect that the problem was not with the client, but our process for implementing behavioral technology into the organizational environment.

A typical OBM initiative would begin by:

  • Data basing all the key performance variables (as key metrics for evaluating success),
  • Training leaders, managers, and supervisor in the process and principles (identifying key improvement behaviors, providing positive reinforcement for behavior and results, etc.), Frontline employees had no specific role in the process. They were given an orientation class of 2 to 4 hours and then sent back to work.
  • Posting feedback graphs of key performance variables for employees to see, and then leaders, managers, and supervisors were supposed to positively reinforce their subordinates for improvement and results.
  • Planning tangible reinforcers—t-shirts, caps, jackets, celebration lunches—were planned and delivered for performance results. Frontline employees had no meaningful role in the process.

Over several hundred separate implementations in every type of business and industry, the same problems reoccurred:

  • It was difficult to engage leadership in the process; they would promote it but not practice it. The focus on "behavior," seemed too simple, but more importantly they felt that they should not have to reinforce their subordinates--who they expected to be self-motivated; considering the way we presented OBM to them at that time, that was not an unreasonable response.
  • It was hard to get supervisors and managers to positively reinforce their subordinates; many had management styles that conflicted with reinforcement-based management. They were uncomfortable “going out” to “say something positive” to an employee.
  • Employees distrusted the process. Past relations with their supervisor had not been positive, so he or she had no ability to reinforce the employee. Positive things supervisors said rang hollow and insincere.
  • Peer reinforcement had a stronger influence on employee performance than supervisory reinforcement. Employees who attempted to improve performance were often punished by their peers for “fraternizing with the enemy.”
  • Performance goals seeded with tangible reinforcers—celebrations, caps, jackets—often engaged employees over the short haul, but once the consultant left—the process was gradually dropped. Sustainability, the institutionalization of behavioral technology into management practices, was non-existent.

Over 90% of the companies where OBM was implemented failed to sustain the initiative—failed to integrate behavioral principles and tools into organizational systems and processes. I determined there were key changes that needed to be made to OBM implementation to equal the success in business and industry that we had achieved in the hospital:

  1. OBM, behavioral principles, must be implemented participatively from the start. All employees need to be part of the process. Everyone should be using positive reinforcement, developing improvement behaviors, providing and receiving feedback. Employees need to be able to pinpoint value-added and put them into a systematic improvement plan. They need to develop reinforcement plans and skills to use on each other and they need to pinpoint behaviors to reinforce their bosses and peers for doing. Once employees understand behavioral technology, they can work as partners--solving problems and finding new value-added, discretionary behavior.
  2. Positive reinforcement can only be effective if the person attempting to do the reinforcing has some “positive value” to the person he or she is trying to reinforce. A reinforcing relationship is required before a manager or supervisor can effectively reinforce a subordinate. If an employee dislikes their supervisor because of his or her past interpersonal practices, supervisory attempts to intermittently use positive reinforcement are not going to have a positive effect.
  3. Effective positive reinforcement needs to take place within a natural context. When supervisors and employees are talking about work, contribution can be referenced—things that employees have done can be alluded to within the flow of natural interaction. When supervisors are discussing resources, technical problems, interim issues, safety, providing directions, and reviewing company communications they are provided ample opportunity to refer to instances where the employee’s behavior has facilitated performance, to say "that worked," or "do you have any other ideas like that one," or "that will put us ahead of schedule this month." The respect and meaning that so many of us want is only available when we are partners with management in the service of the organizations objectives. The only path to optimum employee engagement is through a partnering relationship between management and employees--an end to us and them and the discovery of "we."

I believe these 3 major changes will revolutionize the efficacy of OBM and substantially increase the probability that an organization will incorporate the strategy into their systems and processes. Everyone will have ownership, peers will reinforce each other for making the process effective, and leaders managers and supervisors will have a comfortable process for gradually building reinforcing relationships with the subordinates.

I’m not sure why it has taken business and industry so long to learn some of the most important lessons of organizational change—one being that the key to accelerating change is to engage as many of your employees as you can in the process. Let them plan, brainstorm, problem solve and above all let them envision the objectives of change. Allow them to build a positive picture of where you are trying to lead them. Give them time to see the strengths of their culture and their organization, and use those strengths to visualize an inspiring future—one that is reachable because it is being created on the foundation of existing skills, talents and past successes.

I believe that OBM should be implemented participatively and that management reinforcement should be taught as a relationship skill. Many organizations have tried to implement OBM initiatives over the years and foundered. Their instincts were good about the value of positive reinforcement for organizational performance improvement, management employee-relations and job satisfaction. It is not to late to rejuvenate crumbling initiatives--to re-energize listless systems in which management and employees have lost interest. Re-engineering, redesigning, and relaunching OBM efforts can lead to re-newed success and vigor.

Let me give you a formula for getting people interested in redesigning and relaunching your OBM effort. Tell everyone--employees and management and anyone else that has to be sold on reintroducing the concepts and principles--"we implemented an effort that was intended to ensure that everyone received meaningful positive reinforcement for doing things that help us all succeed--as individuals and as a group. We don't think it fulfilled its potential. We now believe there are some things we can do differently that will ensure that it will succeed and we want to talk with you about those things."

In other words, let everybody be a part of re-energizing your OBM process. Present your logic and your reasoning. Let them partner with you in the reasoning; let them become enthusiastic about rediscovering a solution. Trust in the wisdom of the group.

This blog will continue to promote the strategies that I believe will enhance the efficacy of OBM applications. Participative Positive Reinforcement © may perhaps become Participative Organizational Behavior Management (POBM)—maybe not. But the power of positive reinforcement is so important to organizational performance, employee engagement and employee psychological well-being, that we must continue to explore methods to institutionalize it.