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Work Conversations That Lead to Employee Engagement and Discretionary Effort

There appears to be a lot of interest in positive reinforcement these days, even though what it is and how you do it are misunderstood. I wrote a book a couple of years ago that was intended as a wakeup call to corporations that were blindly, carelessly and sometimes irresponsibly overusing “things” to replace personal contact with their employees. One danger of overusing incentives and tangible rewards is that they can become addictive to management; worsening of management-employee relations is likely because these systems take the place of personal contact. When the landscape is carpeted with money and merchandise, management may depend on these inducements—these incentives, to manage human performance—while they go off to do other things they are more comfortable doing.

Many managers and supervisors abandon active supervision to the companies reward systems because they are uncomfortable delivering positive personal recognition the way it is taught in most training classes. Many trainers and consultants are confused about the definitions of positive reinforcement and recognitionand subsequently they confuse supervisors about how to apply these principle with their employees.

To “attempt” to positively reinforce someone for a behavior, you have to be there when the behavior is happening—you have to see it, or in the case of verbal behavior you have to see lips move and words pronounced. Strictly speaking, the term positive reinforcement only applies to specific behaviors in real time. If you are trying to say something positive about how well someone performed a “task,” a series of associated behaviors that lead to the completion of a work objective, then you are talking about positive verbal recognition. Think of positive reinforcement as something you can only do in real time and positive recognition as something that happens after the behavior.

Here is the discrimination in a nutshell: If you make a positive comment about an employee’s behavior while he or she is doing the behavior, you are “attempting” to positively reinforce the behavior. (I say attempting because we will only know that your comment achieved its purpose if the behavior increases in frequency. If you make a positive comment about something an employee has done (behavior or result) afterward (that could be 10 minutes afterward), you are delivering positive verbal recognition—which makes the employee feel good and may increase the frequency of the behavior as well.

Leaders, managers and supervisors cannot attempt to positively reinforce work behavior unless they are in the workplace—where employees are doing their jobs. An added requirement is that your verbal comments have value to the person whose behavior you are “attempting” to positively reinforce. If the employee doesn’t like you, then the behavior you are attempting to encourage may not increase in frequency, and it may actually decrease in frequency.

The reason this is important only emerges if one is systematically attempting to use positive reinforcement to increase the frequency of specific behaviors in the workplace. For instance, if you are trying to get retail sales associates to approach customers quickly when they come into their merchandise area or you want an employee working in a manufacturing area to perform a specific safe behavior when they are working. In each case, you want to make a positive verbal comment as the behavior is occurring. The only way you can determine if your positive comment is increasing the frequency of the behavior is to track that behavior—to measure its frequency—which is difficult to do in a work setting.

Training classes make the assumption that if a supervisor makes a positive comment to an employee in a warehouse about his proper lifting technique, it will encourage that employee to lift in that manner in the future—because the lifting behavior was “positively reinforced” by the supervisor’s comment.The real world problem that emerges from this ideal scenario is that the employee may not like the supervisor because of the supervisor’s abrasive personality or his past behavior toward the employee. Or even if the employee likes the supervisor, he may see the act of presenting the verbal behavior as part of an initiative, something that the supervisor has been taught and encouraged to do. Hence, the presentation of the positive verbal comment becomes associated with a kind of “work game;” the act has no meaning—it is not associated with any real values that the supervisor has, or the organization for that matter.It is something he does to get the employee to do something.

Positive verbal recognition is, in fact, what managers and supervisors are doing when they are making positive comments about an employee’s work. Everyone in the organization may be erroneously calling it positive reinforcement, but as we have established that could only be the case in specific instances that are hard to achieve in the real world of work. What supervisors and managers are really doing is presenting a positive verbal comment that acknowledges a behavior, task completion, goal attainment, value added behavior, or safe act that has been performed by the employee in the recent past. Although it can be for one behavior, it is usually delivered for a collection of behaviors that culminated in some favorable result.

So, having threaded our way through these somewhat confusing discriminations between verbal positive reinforcement and verbal positive recognition we arrive at an uncomfortable truth: supervisors are not doing either of them.For reasons of personality, past relationship history, the doing-it-because-he-has-to syndrome, the program du jour perception, the contrived effect, the awkwardness avoidance phenomenon—supervisor and managers will default to saying “thank you,” or “thanks for,” which is repeated so many times that it no longer has a positive effect on the employee.

The key to encouraging supervisors (and all levels of management) to learn how to deliver positive verbal recognition to their direct reports is to prompt them to talk about the work—not to try to make them go out and deliver positive verbal comments. The success factor hidden within this approach is that as supervisors talk to employees about the work, they are provided with numerous opportunities to identify things the employee has done that are valuable. Positive feedback is a form of positive verbal recognition that functions to improve the supervisor-employee relationship and also increases the probability the employee will work to please that supervisor in the future.

If you prompt managers and supervisors to provide their reports with positive feedback about what the employee did that moved things along or about things they need to change that will help, you are in effect prompting an interaction that will lead to employee positive recognition. Many behaviorists define feedback as “information about performance,” and positive reinforcement as, “a behavior (that) is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus and, as a result, occurs more often in the future.” This leads confused managers and supervisors to think that the two function differently.

I think the social dynamics of human interaction make the preceding discrimination useless for practical purposes. When an employee walks up to performance feedback graph in the breakroom, they are receiving “information about performance.”When they see that their department’s performance has increased, they may or may not have a positive emotional response. When a supervisor or manager presents the graph and says something about it, it is no longer abstract information—it is emotionalized by the human factor—by the relationship history of the supervisor and the employee.

Many managers and supervisors believe that the presentation of feedback about something that needs to be done differently (often referred to as negative feedback) is punishing to employees. If properly delivered, performance feedback about changes that need to be made does not make the employee angry at the supervisor; they may experience a transient negative feeling about themselves because we like to perceive ourselves as competent—as good at what we do. If you say, “Jim, yesterday when you repositioned the parts for assembly, I’m not sure we saved any time. What do you think?” Ninety-five % of the time, the employee will say, “I think you’re right. I think we need to put them back the way they were until I can come up with a better idea.”

My major point is that most organizations resort to tangible reinforcement programs because supervisors are not providing positive verbal recognition—positive comments about the things employees are doing that adds value. They do not deliver positive performance comments because the traditional methods that they have been taught are objectionable to themselves and the employees they manage. Specific, sincere, immediate and personal is a great little recipe for the delivery of a positive comment that is intended to be positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, employees do not like to be the target of orchestrated tactics their supervisor learned out of a book or from a workshop.

If we can encourage supervisors to have regular conversations with their employees, with give and take exchanges about the work—positive verbal recognition emerges in the form of positive feedback which functions to improve the relationship between employee and supervisor and encourages the discretionary effort and employee engagement we know are essential to optimal organizational performance.I have included an example of a supervisor-employee work conversation below:

“Hi Pauline; how’s it going today?”

“Fine,” Pauline says.

“I wanted to remind you that when you change out the roller today—be sure you lock and tag it out, and watch the edge of the case cover. It’s sharp and Jim almost cut himself last week. Do you need new ear plugs?”

“I picked some up just this morning; the ones I have are only two days old.” Pauline says.

“Did Jim get those stage two processors you needed to update your system?”

“I was expecting him to deliver them, but I haven’t seen him,” she replies.

“I’ll check with him and make sure you get them before noon. By the way, when Cheryl comes by and asks you how you expedite services for our tier 1 customers, would you mind telling her how you do it?”

“Sure; I don’t mind.” Pauline says.

“Today at 2:00 PM we’re having visitors from our largest customer tour the facility. You don’t have to do anything; I just wanted to let you know they are coming through.”

“Thanks for the heads-up.” Pauline says.

“Yesterday, I happened to notice that you moved the rod compressor every time you reload; what would happen if you only moved it once?”

“I never thought about it; I’ll give it a try.” Pauline says.

“The idea you had about repositioning the tools worked for everyone except Alice and that’s because she has an old machine.”

“Glad to help.” Pauline says.

“I’m going over to see if Dell needs anything. If you need me page me. I’ll ask Jim to get those processors over here.”

“The sooner the better.” Pauline says.

“See yah latter.”

In this conversation between supervisor and employee, there is some positive verbal feedback, some corrective feedback, some instruction, some information gathering, and some communication. This employee was given positive verbal recognition (positive feedback); see if you can identify when it happened.