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Why Attempts to Positively Reinforce Employees Can Fail

Shocked? How can the gospel according to your trainers, consultants, and incentive houses--be wrong? This is an outrage! Everybody knows that positive reinforcement works, that’s why American corporations spend several billion dollars a year on trophies, plaques, awards, cups, t-shirts, hats and pizza dinners—to positively reinforce, recognize, reward, celebrate, honor, and praise employees who outperform their peers.

That’s why millions of people Google phrases like, “best way positively reinforce employee,” or “how to recognize employees,” or “how recognize supervisor,” and so forth. Of course it works…everybody knows it works. Well I say it does not work—not in the way that it is being applied by thousands of companies world wide—not in the way it is being taught in books, workshops, and seminars.

I challenge anyone to prove me wrong! You are astounded by my audacity; shocked by my impertinence; frightened by the minuscule chance that I may actually be right. And, if I am—oh what fools we have been, chuckling and clowning and hamming it up like 5th graders. What if…I mean, what if all the employees that complained about this in the beginning…the ones who said it was childish and demeaning and manipulative and insensitive and embarrassing…what if they were right?

But, it’s impossible. All the magazines say that it’s fun and joyous and…and…I get all choked up just thinking about how beautiful it is when you give a man a plaque that expresses the companies appreciation for all the good things he did. And, we give him a parking place up front…and, we put his picture in the company newspaper on the front page…and, everybody is so happy for him—except all his coworkers who felt they worked as hard as he did but were overlooked because of politics or poor supervision or favoritism.

And, if you believe all this, I have two wolverine pups that will make excellent house pets; they are great with toddlers and other small animals.Let me rephrase my position, so that when you repeat it to your human resources director, director of training, CEO, or expensive behavioral consultant they will not get confused:

Show Me the Data!

I challenge anyone to prove to me that using tangible items (the things American companies spend billions on) and verbal praise (the nice things your managers and supervisors are taught to say to people about their performance) increases human performance, profitability, and job satisfaction beyond chance variability. Where is the data?

I don’t mean anecdotal data like, “in widget assembly in Oshkosh, when a supervisor starting telling Jim he was improving he did better by 20%.” I mean significant, long term data--reliable data. Calculate all the money and time and training you spend on rewards and recognition and positive reinforcement games and tactics.Using baseline performance (you do have a baseline, don’t you?), determine how much performance improvement you have obtained by using all these strategies.

What is the ROI? I know, your HR department or CEO says the ROI does not matter; your doing all this because it is humanistic, caring, and compassionate…it is the right thing to do.Are you sure?

Can you prove that teaching supervisors and managers to use verbal positive reinforcement is a moral or ethical upgrade? I say it is not.I say that teaching an organization to use words as tactical motivators is manipulative, dishonest and most importantly—the employee knows it and feels it. There are better ways to encourage employees to engage—to perform.

So you say, “What the hell do you know?” “What makes you an expert on positive reinforcement?” Well, for starts, in 1970 I worked in psychiatric hospitals using behavior modification—positive reinforcement—to shape patient behavior…to change their behavior from dysfunctional, crazy behavior to productive, socially acceptable behavior. I used positive reinforcement to shape the behavior of autistic children—to teach them to talk and communicate.

Then, in 1971 I started a 35 year career working in business and industry—a career applying behavior modification—changing job behavior by applying positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement—to employee behaviors that increased profitability (improved quality, productivity, customer service, etc.). I taught over 200,000 managers and supervisors the rules and principles of applying positive reinforcement to employee behavior. I designed recognition and compensation and award programs for Fortune 100 companies. I was reading B.F.Skinner (the man who discovered the principle of positive reinforcement) when most of you were in diapers.

If positive reinforcement is being applied incorrectly—if it is not getting the results everyone is saying it is getting—if we are all part of some self-delusional phenomenon—group denial, then what do we do. Did you ever wonder what would happen if you just stopped it all—stopped all the prizes, bonuses, awards, vacations, meals, toasters, caps, shirts, etc? What would happen if all the extra money people are getting—the perks and bonuses and “things” were stopped?

Mutiny, riot, disgruntled employees—rebellion and discord; whether all the reward, recognition, and positive reinforcement works or not is a moot point; it is the finger in the dike. If you take away all the goodies, you are removing a source of income that employees have come to depend on.You can’t do it.It is no longer about contingent recognition for extra effort, discretionary effort of work performance above and beyond; it is about expected compensation. It you keep handing out the goodies—well, that’s what your supposed to be doing; it has no real motivational value—it is a given. But, if you take it away, then you are a bad guy; you are taking away their compensation—something they have become accustomed to—something they count on.

Most people who read this will not want to believe it.It is too uncomfortable…too inconvenient; it is an inconvenient truth.In fact the statement, “Positive reinforcement does not work,” is an irrational statement. Positive reinforcement is not a moral imperative; it is a scientific description of the behavior of physical matter, biomechanics and biochemical energy conversion.

Effective behavior—the things we do or say that work for us—that achieve some useful end…those behaviors are repeated. We call that process positive reinforcement. You do something (behavior), it works (get you what you want), so you do that (behave that way) again; we describe that 3 part relationship as positive reinforcement or we say the behavior was positively reinforced.

The problem is that telling a supervisor that he will positively reinforce an employee’s behavior (for instance the employee does something extra for a customer, something we want them to do again because it leads to customer satisfaction, therefore company profit) by saying, “Jim, I saw you tell spend some extra time with Mrs. Jones today. Thanks for putting out the extra effort,” may not only be incorrect, it may be counterproductive.

Afterward, the employee who was on the receiving end of this verbal praise was heard to remark to a fellow employee: 

“Did you hear what Wilbur said to me?”

“Bout what?”

“Bout me showing Mrs. Jones how to use that new IPod?”

“Wh’d he say?”

“He thanked me for puttin’ out the extra effort.”

“How the hell would he know? He don’t get out of that office but once a week.He must have accidentally seen you.Maybe he’s spying on you.”

“I don’t know what he’s up to; Ralph’s his buddy.He don’t even like me.”

“He ain’t said two words to anybody but Ralph in the last year.”

“He don’t even know what I do in the department; how the hell would he know what I was saying to Mrs. Jones?”

“I think Wilbur’s boss is on him ‘bout something.He comes out of his office 2 or 3 times a day now.Something’s up.”

“Yep; something’s up allright.When they start acting weird and friendly, you know that something’s about to happen.”

“Talk to his assistant, Amber. You know her don’t yah?”

“Yeah; the wife sees her down at the Wal Mart sometimes and she gets the scoop on things.I’ll fill you in.”

My next post will explain how to use Positive Reinforcement in the right way.