How to Use Behavior Modification to Motivate Employees

Behavior modification techniques are used in many workplaces.
Behavior modification techniques are used in many workplaces. (Image: Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

Behavior modification techniques became popular after Harvard University psychologist B.F. Skinner in 1971 wrote his seminal work," Beyond Freedom and Dignity." He formalized an approach, known as operant conditioning, of rewards and punishments to shape behavior. He postulated that operant conditioning shapes all human behavior, in homes, school and the workplace. Prodigious and opinionated, Skinner said, "the real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do," meaning that employees' behaviors are what make an organization successful, as opposed to efficient machines.

Positive Reinforcement

Implement a flexible scheduling program to increase attendance. Employees frequently miss work days due to children's illnesses, doctor's appointments and social engagements. Implementing a flexible schedule program where employees are freer to set their own work hours results in greater attendance.

Write thank-you notes to increase employee satisfaction. Employees tend to feel appreciated and more satisfied if their good work is recognized. The workplace is a social environment, and this simple gesture serves as effective positive reinforcement.

Take your employees to lunch to show appreciation for efforts that are "above and beyond." This method of positive reinforcement will be remembered, and employees are more likely to give their best efforts if their supervisor shows his appreciation.

Award raises and bonuses. A raise is a traditional means of operant conditioning to recognize and reinforce performance that is above average. Employees who are financially rewarded are more likely to repeat positive behaviors.

Talk to your employees. This simple intervention serves as powerful social reinforcement. Show that you care about their progress and work. They will reward you with increased positive behaviors.

Negative Reinforcement

Allow high performers to skip meetings they find to be dull and boring. Removal of a noxious stimulus when a target behavior, such as high productivity, is achieved is a powerful behavior modification technique known as negative reinforcement.

Allow productive employees to work from home, thus removing the negatives of a long commute. Employees given work-from-home arrangements tend to work longer hours.

Allow productive employees to work from home.
Allow productive employees to work from home. (Image: Jupiterimages/ Images)

Allow high performers to leave work early if inclement weather is approaching. They will be more motivated to complete tasks.

Encourage frequent, short breaks once major tasks are completed to lessen negatives associated with being in cramped office cubicles.


Write up employees for major infractions. This is a form of punishment that motivates employees to implement corrective behaviors.

Ask employees to rewrite substandard work. They will be more likely to carefully proof copy if they have to rewrite it.

Demote an employee if major work tasks are not accomplished. This is a powerful punishment technique that involves loss of salary and loss of status.

Give less productive workers less desirable assignments. This technique will motivate them either to increase the quality of their work, or leave the organization.

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