It's Science, Baby! Proving the Power of Positive Reinforcement at Work

Motivating employees comes down to two methods: positive and negative reinforcement. Which is yours?

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By Heather R. Huhman


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Motivating employees comes down to two methods: positive and negative reinforcement. Leaders either warn employees about punishments, like public humiliation, or create the anticipation of pleasure by promising rewards, like a bonus.

So, which works better?

Related: Want Your Team to Perform Better? Try Positive Reinforcement.

A recent Harvard Business Review article reported that positive reinforcement actually motivates employees better than punishment. Not only is it more effective at motivating change, but it's also less damaging to the employer-employee relationship.

Jeff Miller, the senior director of talent management at Cornerstone OnDemand, said he once changed jobs because he regularly received negative reinforcement. In environments like the one Miller described, attrition is common because employees feel that their boss doesn't trust them.

"Positive reinforcement directly rewards the behavior you want to see continue and/or expanded," Miller said via email from his company, which works in talent-management solutions,in Santa Monica, Calif. "This underscores the importance of knowing what behaviors you want to see your employees engage in," Miller wrote.

However, incorporating positive reinforcement isn't as easy as giving out gift cards or patting employees on the back. Here are some ways companies are using positive reinforcement to motivate employees:

Create momentum and be consistent.

When it comes to motivating employees, Manley Feinberg, a business speaker and author based in St. Louis, says leaders needs one key element: momentum.

Related: The Power of Praise in Business -- and How to Do it Right

"Momentum is the real key to success with any positive motivation program, and momentum is driven by consistency," Feinberg said in an email. "Consistently recognize and reward the behaviors and results you want. Also, beware that when you accept, tolerate or otherwise allow behaviors you don't want, you are rewarding those as well by continuing to employ and compensate the employee."

Casmin Wisner, a public relations specialist at Orem, Utah-based cloud communications provider Jive Communications, echoed that thought. Wisner recently started in her current role and told me that her boss consistently highlights her accomplishments and reinforces her job security while training her on new processes.

"What makes me want to keep working harder, however, isn't the kind messages of security during my failures, which have encouraged me to fail fast," she said via email, "but the recognition and praise for my accomplishments."

To encourage consistent positive reinforcement, define behaviors the organization values, create guidelines for employee success and share them with employees and leaders alike. Then, host communications-training for all levels of management so every leader knows how to motivate employees when they fail.

Think "big picture" and stay future-oriented.

Financial incentives and public recognition are great, but positive motivation is even more impactful, when employees understand the bigger picture. Omer Molad, the co-founder and CEO of Melbourne, Australia-based recruiting software company Vervoe, said leadership should strive to make employees feel invested in their roles and the company's overall mission.

"When everyone is on the same journey, and everyone believes in the importance of that journey, then it's much easier to influence behavior," he said via email. "People understand why, so the focus becomes the overall goal rather than the task itself."

Distribute weekly communications, like newsletters, that highlight how the company mission is considered in every employee behavior. This type of "mission matters" campaign should recognize "mission masters" -- employees who put the mission first. It can also include examples of rewards employees have already earned and tips on how to become a "mission master."

Molad also suggested rewarding employees with more responsibility and independence. "People who exhibit the right behaviors earn trust," he said. "They are then given more ownership over the projects they're working on, or made responsible for new projects.

"Career progression, monetary rewards and public recognition are all natural consequences."

Such rewards help employees visualize their future with the company and stay committed to evolving in their roles.

Ask for employee feedback.

Eric Riz, the founder and CEO of Empty Cubicle, a candidate-verification platform company in Toronto, explained how employees need to understand and agree on what type of reinforcement technique is the most effective.

"To deploy positive motivation across a department or the entire organization, begin by openly discussing the differences between the two reinforcement types with team members," he said via email. "Inevitably, feedback must be provided to teams. A common understanding of the communicative options available is important to obtain buy-in."

In order to establish this common understanding, employees at every level must be educated and heard. Use motivation tactics, like hosting fun competitions; be proactive, and ask how every employee perceives such initiatives.

Get all levels involved by starting a "feedback fellowship," a group of employees who survey their colleagues to determine which types of reinforcement motivate them and which cause distress.

Share successes publicly.

Positivity should be shared loudly and proudly. As the director of employee and customer experience at YouEarnedIt, an employee engagement software company in Austin, Kim Dawson said she strives to ingrain positive reinforcement across the company's entire culture.

"Not only does positive motivation produce great results," she said via email, "but when that positive motivation is shared across the business by everyone in a public way, it becomes amazing."

Related: The Simple Way to Find Out What Motivates Your Employees

Encourage everyone to share their successes, and make sure your method for doing so matches the culture. If the company is informal and favors humor and lightheartedness, start an "awesome sauce" club. Post pictures of top performers, and hand out awesome sauce trophies that they can proudly display on their desks.

Heather R. Huhman

Career and Workplace Expert; Founder and President, Come Recommended

Waldorf, Md.-based Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager and president of Come Recommended, the PR solution for job search and HR tech companies. She writes about issues impacting the modern workplace.

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