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What the (Bleep) do I know About Positive Reinforcement?

I have implemented positive reinforcement systematically at more business sites than any practicing OBM consultant.What relevance does that have for this blog, my comments about the best way to positively reinforce an employee—what works or does not work in Organizational Behavior Management (OBM)?It means I’ve made more mistakes than you can ever make and I may have learned something from them.

Behavior change—that was my objective. I walked into over 100 separate business sites over a 35 year period and baselined their key performance variables; quantity, quality, timeliness, waste, efficiency—I took a snapshot of their business scorecard because my job was to get all those numbers up. I was being paid by the plant manager or corporate leadership to reduce turnover and absenteeism and at the same time get all the performance numbers up—significantly!

After baselining the key business performance metrics, I trained every manager and supervisor on site in behavioral principles—how to operationally define and identify value added job behaviors in every department—every job; how to measure behavior, to quantify the frequency of value added behavior that would drive performance data up for big improvement gains. Then, I trained all the management team in performance feedback and how to deliver positive reinforcement.

Each manager and supervisor walked out of my workshop with a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that included the key performance variable he or she was going to improve, goals for improvement, a feedback graph that would be publicly posted in their department, and a script for what they would say to positively reinforce employees for specific behaviors and results. That’s right—we figured out ahead of time what the supervisor or manager was going to say to an employee if they saw them exhibiting discretionary effort or a value added behavior.

Did it work? You bet it did, because I was on site 4 days a week—in the workplace—on the floor, ensuring that graphs were up to date and accompanying supervisors on visits to deliver positive reinforcement to employees. One Ford plant in which I implemented positive reinforcement strategies employed over 2000 people. It became the most efficient car assembly plant in the world (that’s right—better than Japan) 6 months after I implemented an OBM process. Some of the improvement data in distribution centers, manufacturing plants, banks, insurance, mines, utilities, nuclear, auto assembly, and textiles was so dramatic that corporate bean counters challenged the data—claiming that the numbers were being falsified.

Were these powerful change and improvement results due to positive reinforcement? Unfortunately no, in my opinion. Mostly because the delivery method had questionable credibility. Supervisors with negative interaction histories went out on missions to positively reinforce their subordinates because they were being required to do so. One year after I left the Ford assembly plant, almost all signs of OBM had vanished. Just because it worked, did not mean it was going to be adopted by management. All organizational initiatives bring energy, interim behavior change (behavioral white noise due to uncertainty and changing expectations), sometimes excitement, often hope, increased job attention (who knows, people who don’t play along might get fired) and increased management attention to performance (a negative reinforcer; employees will perform at higher levels to avoid negative consequences related to the attention their performance is being given.)

Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) is being implemented in much the same way today as it was in 1973 when I implemented it in 10 textile mills. Implemented in the way I used to do it, positive reinforcement and behavioral principles were Band-Aids—quick fixes that failed to address the underlying problems—the systems, process, and values viruses that infected the organization at its core. To apply positive reinforcement strategies without addressing the organization’s underlying core values, is futile. Like 95% of the OBM projects installed in the last 35 years, it will not sustain itself. Parts of it may be adopted by this or that person, but in the end it will not be institutionalized. Even organizations with strong OBM internal champions will eventually deconstruct.

Have I become a naysayer—cynical after witnessing my failure and the failure of dozens of OBM consultants? Emphatically no! I believe more strongly now than I ever have that the way to optimize human performance potential and discretionary effort is through positive reinforcement. I witnessed hundreds of instances in which supervisors or managers effectively positively reinforced an employee for something they did. The supervisor did it naturally, in most cases spontaneously, and from the heart; and, the employee glowed—they were transformed, imbued with the joy of being validated, approved of, and recognized for having done something of value. Genuine, heartfelt, sincere positive reinforcement is the strongest motivator on the planet.

Unfortunately, the supervisors who are positive reinforcers by nature are in the minority. The rest of us have to apply ourselves to this challenging task and it is almost impossible if the organization in which we are working is not supportive of our efforts. Several things need to be in place to provide supervisors and managers with an environment that supports their efforts to manage positively:

  • Values—the respectful, compassionate, and humane treatment of all employees is uncompromised. Sensitivity to employee feelings and wellbeing must be the core value of the organization.
  • Leadership—men and women whose actions are guided by the value of their employees and reflect that value in their actions and decisions.
  • Individual accountability—each manager and supervisor’s upward mobility and compensation—their career is contingent upon their ability to treat their employees with dignity and respect. It is the core denominator in their performance evaluation.
  • Positive reinforcement--supervisors and managers need to be reinforced as they progress through the shaping steps to create reinforcing relationships with their employees.

Even if we have all these organizational supports in place, if a supervisor is not a natural positive reinforcer (most of us are not) how does he develop skills in natural reinforcement? The answer is covered in many of my past blogs, but in short, we must set the stage for a supervisor or manager’s success. A context, an environmental arrangement must be created; supervisors must be provided with a shaping process—a set of incremental opportunities where they can gradually change the way they talk and listen to their subordinates.

Supervisors and managers can be provided a workshop during which they learn how to have productive, reinforcing work dialogs that will ensure they can provide their subordinates with meaningful performance feedback, effective performance antecedents (instructions, directions, priorities) and deliver sincere, appreciative positive reinforcement when it is appropriate. A prescriptive, incremental behavior change plan can allow each supervisor and manager to learn new behavior at his or her own pace. The final outcome is that any supervisor, regardless of their past interpersonal behavior, can become successful at talking and listening—positively reinforcing those who work for them. In a natural context; with genuine feeling.

So, what the (βleep) do I know about positive reinforcement? I know a lot about how to do it wrong; how it can fail; why employees don’t receive it well; why supervisors want to avoid doing it; and finally after many years—how to do it right.