You're a good manager, right? Positive. Upbeat. You tell your employees how much you appreciate them. You implement recognition and rewards for a job well done. Heck, you even tell them what they're doing right before you tell them what they're doing wrong. But what you thought you knew about positive reinforcement may be all wrong. And what you think you know might hurt you. In fact, it probably already does.
We've asked Dr. Aubrey C. Daniels, author of Other People's Habits: How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Bring Out the Best in People Around You and president of international consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates to explain the power of positive reinforcement and how it can benefit your employees' performance.
Entrepreneur.com: Your book says that "positive reinforcement is the most powerful interpersonal tool a person can use to improve a personal relationship...yet it is the most misunderstood and misused." Why is it so powerful?
Aubrey Daniels: Positive reinforcement is the only thing that happens following a behavior that causes people to want to do what they've just done again. When someone does something and they get negatively reinforced-they do something in order to avoid some negative consequence, [which] can be something as simple as a frown or getting yelled at-what that does is causes them to do just enough to get by. Positive reinforcement accelerates performance, so the more you get, the more you want to do the behavior. That's why it's powerful. And it's so powerful that if you do it at the wrong time or in the wrong way, you'll get more of the wrong thing.
Entrepreneur.com: What are some of the wrong ways managers use it and what are the effects?
Daniels: One of the most common ways that people misuse [positive reinforcement] is they don't understand that it's very personal. What's effective for you as a reinforcer is going to be different for me. Think of positive reinforcers as: What would people spend their free time and money to be able to do or have? If you could do anything you wanted to do at a given moment, what would you choose to do? That would identify what would be a reinforcer for you.
There are a lot of things that don't cost money that are positive reinforcers, like attention and verbal praise and those kinds of things. But those aren't reinforcers from everybody to everybody. [One person may covet] praise, and another person may despise it.
Entrepreneur.com: What are some of the dos and don'ts of positive reinforcement?
Daniels:Do it immediately. Effective reinforcement begins to diminish almost immediately after the behavior occurred, so the best time to reinforce is when you catch someone in the act. If you do something that's meritorious at one point in time, your behavior doesn't stop. And often, by the time somebody gets around to recognizing it, your attitude may have deteriorated, your behavior may have deteriorated.
In my own life, I get in a situation where at some point I'll say to my wife, "Hey, you've had your hair fixed differently." And guess what the response is. "Well, it's about time you noticed." I'm trying to do something positive, but I'm getting punished for it because my timing was so bad. So when organizations use rewards and six months later the person gets it, it has a dubious effect on the behavior that occurred six months ago.
Establish a relationship. The first thing you've got to do is establish yourself as a positive reinforcer, and the way you do that is by simply pairing reinforcement. In other words, if you find something that's important to the other person, then they tend to like you better as a result of that. If I were to say something to you like, "I like that dress" and you like the dress, then you're probably going to like me better because I said that.
There are a lot of very nice people who are very poor supervisors and managers, but there's no truly effective manager, over the long haul, who is not also well liked.
Don't pair it with negativity. There are a lot of people who will say something positive and then take it away by either asking for more or qualifying it with a "but." "You did a good job, but.." What's the net effect of that? So don't use "but" when reinforcing, and don't attempt to punish and reinforce at the same time. There's no research I'm aware of that says that's effective. There's a lot that says it's ineffective, and yet it's the most common way people are taught to correct performance.
Entrepreneur.com: Can you ever reinforce too much?
Daniels: If you do it wrong, one time is it too much. If you do it correctly, you can never do it too much. If I'm still playing golf when I'm 90, I don't think I'll ever get tired of hearing, "Good shot." Because I know that it's an accomplishment. I can see the shot and I know its good so it doesn't bother me that someone says "Good shot." But a lot of people-because they do it wrong-have gotten the idea that you can do it too much.