Positive & Negative Reinforcement Ethics

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Excessive use of negative reinforcement could contribute to fear and anxiety.
Excessive use of negative reinforcement could contribute to fear and anxiety. (Image: Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images)

Managers want to promote positive behaviors in the workplace, such as submitting projects on time, respectfully interacting with clients and committing to professional development. At the same time, managers must discourage certain negative behaviors, such as absenteeism, habitual tardiness or insubordinate actions. Supervisors can rely on positive and negative reinforcement strategies to encourage positive behaviors, but they should first consider the ethics of their methods.

Positive Reinforcement

Most people are familiar with the concept of positive reinforcement, which involves rewarding preferred behaviors to encourage their continuance. For example, when an employee submits a project in a timely fashion, a manager may publicly commend her punctuality so that she feels motivated to continue finishing projects before deadline. The employee has not only received praise; she has received praise before an audience of her peers. Other examples of positive reinforcement include flexible scheduling, promotions, additional responsibilities or other privileges.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is sometimes confused with punishment, but these two methods differ. Negative reinforcement involves removing an undesirable consequence after the employee resumes preferred behaviors, while punishment involves removing a desirable consequence after an employee performs unwanted behaviors. For example, in negative reinforcement, a supervisor might severely reprimand an employee for submitting a high-level project past deadline. When the same employee submits a high-profile project on time the following week, the supervisor refrains from reprimanding the employee. This motivates the employee to continue submitting the project in a timely fashion in order to avoid being embarrassed or criticized.

Ethical Benefits

Positive and negative reinforcement can create positive ethical effects in the workplace. For one thing, workers know that they’re being held accountable for actions after experiencing positive or negative reinforcement. This can create a sense of fairness, discouraging free riders or lackluster performance. Another positive ethical consideration is that employees can be rewarded for actions such as submitting quality work, promoting teamwork in the workplace or engaging productively with clients.

Ethical Challenges

Using positive and negative reinforcement does carry some negative ethical connotations, however. Positive reinforcement might encourage jealousy or competitiveness among co-workers, since employees might feel that colleagues are being singled out for special favors. This could discourage teamwork. Secondly, a workplace environment that emphasizes negative reinforcement could create an atmosphere of fear, intimidation or embarrassment for workers. This could decrease the positive relations between supervisors and employees. Additionally, excessive reliance on positive reinforcement could encourage employees to rely on external motivators for quality work, rather than being intrinsically motivated to perform quality work for its own sake.

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