I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” One online cultural dictionary explains its meaning as the likelihood of winning people to your side more easily by gentle persuasion and flattery than by hostile confrontation. The application of this phrase in the workplace is pretty simple: To get your employees to perform at a higher level, you are more apt to succeed by utilizing positive reinforcement instead of negative reinforcement.
For starters, let’s clearly define two contexts for “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement” as they are commonly (and sometimes unconsciously) used by employers to get more out of employees, i.e. to improve employee performance.
When an employee is positively reinforced it means that he or she performs at a certain level to receive something of value (praise, reward, recognition) from the employer.
Example: An employee shows up on time every day for a month and receives a gift card to a nice restaurant from his employer.
When an employee is negatively reinforced it means that he or she performs at a certain level to avoid a negative consequence (criticism, punishment) from the employer.
Example: An employee shows up to work on time and therefore is not reprimanded by her employer.
That positive reinforcement is superior to punishment in terms of modifying behavior (getting employees to perform at a desired level) is universally accepted in behavioral science. Most notably, this was proven by renowned behaviorist B.F. Skinner. Thus, it goes without saying that, whenever possible, an organization should strive to utilize positive reinforcement as opposed to punishment to motivate employees.
Ideally, punishment or harsh criticism of employees could always be avoided. However, there are cases when it is unavoidable. In his book “Bringing out the Best in People,” prominent behaviorist Dr. Aubrey Daniels discusses effective ways to deliver positive reinforcement and, when necessary, criticism. He claims that a common and costly mistake many employers make is that they deliver the two messages concurrently, and that in these instances any motivation that would have come as the result of the positive reinforcement is lost. This is not surprising. In terms of effective employee incentives, this means that even the best efforts to “incentivize” good performance will be negated if a penalty is given concurrently for bad performance.
Example: “Jeremy, congratulations on winning the customer service contest last week. Here is your $100 debit card. You showed huge improvement, great job! However, you were late again this morning; unfortunately this is the 3rd time this month which means I have to dock you a half day of your bonus vacation time.”
What do you think Jeremy is going to remember about the “recognition” he just received? It didn’t even get the chance to set in before it was totally negated by the punishment. In addition to the $100 spent to incentivize his performance at a higher level, this organization spent additional time and resources planning and administering an employee incentive program. This has all been wasted simply because the employer delivered recognition concurrently with punishment. Jeremy will walk away feeling disgruntled and de-motivated.
The program in place at this hypothetical company to reduce absenteeism by taking away bonus vacation time is not ideal. There are better ways to improve attendance that don’t involve punishment and, when properly utilized, these incentive programs actually improve behaviors like employee attendance. However, even if a less than ideal policy like the one that docks vacation time were in place, the employer would have been wise to wait at least a few days for Jeremy’s recognition to set in before delivering the punishment.
1. Positive reinforcement is much more effective in getting more out of your employees. It should be used in lieu of criticism or punishment whenever possible.
2. When criticism or punishment is unavoidable, it should be delivered as far removed from recognition or praise as possible; under no circumstance should the two be given concurrently.
Snowfly is the leading provider of Internet based employee incentives, recognition and loyalty programs. Snowfly’s incentive system allows clients to harness the enormous motivational power of immediate positive reinforcement to focus employee behavior on company objectives. Compared with home-grown programs, Snowfly significantly improves KPI’s almost immediately, reduces a huge administrative burden and reduces costs. The results are easily seen within weeks and there is no long term contractual obligation. Customers include multiple Blue Cross/Blue Shield providers, Hyatt Hotels, Time Warner Cable, financial institutions, utility companies, cable/satellite providers, various BPO companies (business process outsourcers), and collection departments/agencies. Snowfly’s web site: www.Snowfly.com. For more information, contact Snowfly at 1-877-SNOWFLY (766-9359). Or email Bob Cowen at email@example.com