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When Rewards Don't Work

Everyone has read a book or an article on "how to deliver positive reinforcement." In most cases the author has provided the rules of reinforcement; a list of potential reinforcers - tangible, intangible, social, symbolic, etc. Or the KISS rule - keep it simple stupid - for delivery.
Many of the rules suggest things to say and when to say them. Using one of the many formulas for selecting what to say, or which tangible to use (cup, t-shirt, plaque), includes an element of risk - the risk that for that person, that form of verbal or non-verbal reinforcement is not effective.

The variance in employee personalities is broad; it is practically impossible to generalize about what you should say or do that will reinforce every person. I can provide plenty of examples of instances where money or attention or a plaque have failed to have a positive effect.

The principle of "reinforcement" defines reinforcement as the influence an outcome has on a specific behavior - that is, a behavior has been "reinforced," if it increases the frequency of the behavior after the supposed "reinforcer" has been delivered. So if you say something positive about something someone does and they don't do it again you know that whatever you said was not a positive reinforcer.

In the real world of work, we seldom reinforce specific behaviors. Most often we reinforce the accomplishment of a task, or we reinforce a group for reaching a goal. One approach that has been used to identify reinforcers is to ask the performer or performers what they would like; that is, what do you want us to reinforce you with.

Often this approach looks something like, "what do you want us to give you if you reach X goal?" Or, "do you want pizza brought in, or sandwiches?" Speculating about what to say - what kind of verbal reinforcement to use reminds me of the old Andy Griffith story of the country boy who goes to a dance for the first time. He is anxious and wants to dance with a girl but is reluctant because he is unsure of his social skills.

A friend that accompanied him to the dance urges him to go ahead and ask her for a dance. The boy is nervous about dancing with the girl and tells his friend he doesn't know how to talk to her; he doesn't know what to say. His friend's advice is to "say something nice." So the boy asks the girl to dance and as they are dancing says to her, "you know, for a fat girl you shore don't sweat much."

The point I am making in a very roundabout way is that the best way to find out how to reward a person for an accomplishment or a group for reaching a goal or achievement is to ask. By ask, I don't mean ask them directly what they want, but ask them what, and when, and how they have been reinforced - encouraged to try harder or apply themselves - in the past. Ask them to describe reinforcing moments in their lives. Find out what someone said to them or did for them (when they did something or accomplished something) that they really liked.

For instance you might say to the group, "Let's list the things that someone has said to you, or about you, or done for you in the past that has encouraged you, made you feel valued, or made you feel proud of what you had done?" 

An outstanding moment in my life that is an example of where this question can lead, took place 40 years ago - on my first consulting project. For my first consulting project, I was sent to apply behavior modification in a textile mill in east Georgia. I was scared that I would not perform and knew that my boss was looking closely at the results. 

The Vice President of manufacturing for the client company called my boss and asked him to visit. This made me very nervous. When he arrived they met and called me into the meeting. The VP said, "we have decided to implement this in our remaining 13 plants; but, only if Jerry does the work." 

That was an Oscar winning moment for me. It encouraged me to try hard to do even better.

This is one of the best moments in my life; the subtle point here is that the VP never said, "you did a great job," or, "thanks for your hard work." Often, being assigned to do something that requires special skill or experience is extremely motivating for a person. It lights up their passion for excellence and discretionary effort. It is a very reinforcing moment.

I asked a group about reinforcing moments in their lives and one person said, "the things that have made me feel good are the things that someone told me they overheard either my supervisor or a coworker saying about me. Like, "she is someone you can count on if you get into a bind. Hearing it indirectly was less embarrassing than having the supervisor or coworker say that to me directly."

When you ask a group about past moments when they were reinforced and really enjoyed it, the issue of direct versus indirect, public versus private, individual versus group - all come up. Positive comments by others about something we have done often makes us squirm. Something about it makes many people uncomfortable.

In a large automobile assembly plant, a frontline employee saved the company about $500,000 by telling his supervisor about a developing mechanical problem which, had it not be caught early, would have shut down the line for hours. The plant manager was so happy he called together 300 people and, with the employee present, told everyone what he had done and how much it was appreciated.

A great reinforcing moment, right? Nope. Afterward the employee was heard to say, "I'll never do that again." Why would he say that? Because he was an introverted, shy man who was embarrassed by the attention.

My point is that collecting past reinforcing moments will allow you to know what individuals have found rewarding and inspiring.  You will learn the kinds of words and circumstances that employees have found motivating. The objective of teaching managers and supervisors about positive reinforcement is to equip them with the knowledge of what to do or say that will infuse energy and enthusiasm into employee performance.  Employee engagement is seated upon the foundation of reinforcement.

Abstract rules and examples often result in missteps and blunders that do more harm than good. The secret of successful reinforcement delivery is to explore the history of as many individuals as you can and record what they say. Discover the history of reinforcing moments your employees have experienced. Soon you will see a pattern, a template for reinforcement that is appropriate for your company, your region, and your employees. And just as important, you will be able to deliver reinforcement with confidence because you are not guessing and testing reinforcement tactics. You are using proven methods from the history of your employees.

Try pulling together a group of employees to do this. Ask them a set of questions about moments in their working lives when someone said something that really brought out the best in them. Maybe a few words like, "boy, that was really creative." When you do this, you will learn how to deliver positive reinforcement in the real world - not according to a formula in a book.