Reinforcement Theory in the Workplace

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Young adult employee having a conversation with his boss
Young adult employee having a conversation with his boss (Image: Design Pics/Design Pics/Getty Images)

In the workplace, the reinforcement theory of motivation says that you can manage employee behavior in even the most diverse work groups by controlling consequences rather than causes. The theory states that an employee will rely on past outcomes when choosing future behaviors. Although many businesses use both positive and negative reinforcements, according to Boundless Business, positive reinforcement is the best choice for reducing unwanted employee behaviors.

Positive Reinforcement

A positive response, such as praise or public recognition, or a reward when an employee exhibits desirable behaviors often increases the likelihood that a desired behavior will continue. In a 2010 article in ALN magazine, Martin Seidenfeld, an author and clinical psychologist, says that frequent but random reinforcements given as soon as possible are the most effective. In addition, rewards should align with the importance of the behavior. For example, if you notice that a customer service agent is successful in helping a difficult client, a handshake and a sincere thank you are appropriate.

Negative Reinforcement

Although the term “negative reinforcement” may seem like it relates to punishment, it is different. While punishment imposes negative consequences to discourage bad behavior, negative reinforcement withholds or removes negative consequences to encourage ongoing good behavior. For example, a decision not to reassign a waitress to an undesirable seating area when you notice that she’s working hard to increase table orders should increase the likelihood the waitress will continue this behavior. In the same way, releasing an employee who is making progress toward meeting performance goals from a weekly progress meeting should increase the likelihood that he will continue working hard.

Extinction

Extinction is a neutral response designed to stop a learned behavior. For example, you might stop approving overtime pay -- a positive reinforcement during the busy season -- to discourage employees from staying late or coming in on the weekends. However, withholding positive reinforcement after your employees come to expect it can have the unwanted effect of decreasing a desirable behavior. For this reason, once you implement reinforcement principles, you may need to continue positive rewards so that positive behaviors continue.

Punishment

Although punishments attempt to decrease undesirable behaviors, they lie at the fringe of the reinforcement theory and because of potential side effects should be a last resort. Examples such as demoting or placing an employee who does meet performance goals on corrective actions or writing-up an employee who consistently arrives late to work illustrate that punishments impose negative consequences to discourage bad behavior.

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