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The Context for Effective Positive Reinforcement

The positive reinforcement bandwagon is galloping through American business and industry. America is riding on a wave of rewards, recognition, motivation, incentives, and contingent compensation—a distinctly humanistic cultural phenomenon. Not too many years ago, many of these same organizational environments were punitive and indifferent to employee satisfaction and emotional well-being.

In recent blogs, I have emphasized that verbal positive reinforcement—the delivery of positive feedback and information to employees about their day-to-day performance—should be delivered naturally within the context of work discussions. Research data has demonstrated that when supervisors frequently talk with employees about safety, the employees job performance increases as well.

When supervisors talk with employees about job performance, when they establish an effective dialog that provides the employee with positive, neutral, and corrective feedback about his or her performance, employee job satisfaction and performance improve noticeably.


The reason work dialogs are so important is because they present the context for supervisory/employee relationship building—for the supervisor to demonstrate personable interaction skills and, within the context of productive dialogs, acknowledge the employee’s value.

One of the top 3 items that employees list as crucial to their job satisfaction is respect—they want their value as individuals and the value of their work to be acknowledged. For an employee to feel respected, several things have to happen concurrently.No silver bullet is going to do the job.

What things need to be in place in an organization to ensure that employees feel respected and valued? What type of culture and climate creates the context for effective reinforcement?

  • Respectful treatment by one's supervisor; verbal behavior that is diplomatic and skillful. Interactions that enable relationship building.
  • A collaborative environment where team principles and peer cooperation are promoted and managed through leadership practices.
  • Acknowledgment of the value of one's job performance and the value created through one's daily efforts. (This is accomplished through the supervisor’s daily dialogs with employees.)
  • Some employees want challenges—opportunities to work on projects, solve problems, implement change, learn new skills, promotion, or advancement.Many employees want none of this—in fact, placing them in these situations is onerous and punitive to them.
  • Some employees work best in an internal competitive environment—where performance contests, sales initiatives, and interim financial incentives are based on how well they do compared to others.For most employees—those who are not performing a sales function—internal competition can erode teamwork and should be carefully considered prior to implementation.
  • Leadership practices are essential to creating a culture where employees are happy and perform well:
    • Communication—good leaders provide essential information to their employees which contributes to the employee feeling “in on things.”
    • Values—effective leaders promote fairness, sensitivity, ethics, and morality through their business practices and create an employee-friendly organizational culture.
    • Trust—that leaders, managers, supervisors—the organization does what it says it is going to do. Promises are kept and fulfilled.
  • Resources—employees want the tools and training needed to do their jobs. Their absences indicates the organizations disinterest and an absence of caring.
  • Some employees like games, incentive systems, and motivational programs—others feel demeaned and manipulated by these overly-common practices. Leadership must be able to discriminate and know what employees are comfortable with.
  • Systems and process problems should be identified and resolved. Dysfunctional systems and poorly designed or outdated processes are barriers to performance. Employees hold leadership responsible for making their jobs harder and putting obstacles in their way.

The highest levels of organizational performance can only be achieved if all the key factors that influence an employee's job performance are being addressed.Trying to use quick fixes and gimmicks to encourage momentary gains, only further erodes employee trust and their desire to engage with the organization.A “good” supervisor can compensate for many organizational ills.One’s relationship with one’s supervisor can create a tentative shield that offers some protection against the pummeling and tumult created in an employee-unfriendly organizational culture.

Many supervisors and managers are concerned about how to say positively reinforcing things to their employees.At the end of the day, no one thing said is going to create a relationship. A reinforcing relationship is created by everything a supervisor says to each employee—everyday. The best single guide to supervisory interpersonal effectiveness is based on a variation of the ethic of reciprocity, and goes something like this—“treat others (through the things you say and do) the way you would like to be treated.”

If every supervisor had this tattooed inside their eyelids, employee satisfaction would be increased exponentially. Poor performance, turnover, absenteeism, malingering, sabotage, negative attitudes, dissatisfied customers, poor product quality—lots of organizational performance problems would go away.