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Negative reinforcement part 1

Is it the best?

The only way to modify behaviour for the better is through either positive or negative reinforcement.
So which is best?

If you listen to many managers they will almost always say they use positive reinforcement so this should dominate management thinking.
The method used for improving motivation will influence the working environment.
Virtually, all behaviour management tends to be by negative reinforcement.

There are many reasons for this.

Basic character

We all like to think that we are doing the right thing for the right reasons and in the case of many managers they clearly are in their own minds. The reality is often different if you look closely at the consequences that they employ.
A person would feel insulted or annoyed if you were to tell them that was they were doing exactly the opposite of what they believed.

Most forms of supposed positive reinforcement are in fact negative when analysed more closely.

For example, a group of people may have been struggling really hard to complete a task with no apparent sympathy or direction from their boss. At the end of it all the group are mentally exhausted and then receive a pat on the back or a note from the boss saying, “Well done.”

The boss believes that he has positively reinforced their efforts and can cite his action as a ‘consequence’ the work force would like to have.
After all, it’s better than nothing.
From the point of view of the workers it can be seen as a ‘slap in the face’.
The boss sends a note with probably no real clue as to what has been achieved, other then it finished on time perhaps and made him or her look good.

Many people are carrying out activities purely because they have to and not because they want to.

It’s the result that matters

Many managers are only interested in results.
They are often of the school of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and are not bothered how the result is achieved so long as it is.

On this basis, it clearly doesn’t matter what form motivation takes so long as it produces the desired results.
This is a dangerous way of thinking.

If you remember the only ways to modify behaviour for the better are:

  • Positive reinforcement

This is something you would like get or happen.

  • Negative reinforcement

This is when you manage to avoid something that you don’t want to get or happen.

It is human nature that most people like to receive something nice and would prefer not to have to avoid a negative impact.
On this basis alone most would agree that positive reinforcement is preferred.

However, the most important reason for avoiding negative reinforcement is that it is ‘goal’ dependent.
That is, once you have achieved your ‘goal’ of avoiding the negative consequence performance will cease.
With positive reinforcement you will get effort over and above what you expect.

Goal setting

Let us say that you are in a working environment that doesn’t exactly fill you with joy.
Negative reinforcement is rife within the system.

You have been underperforming.
You have a target of 500 widgets per month and you have only been producing, say 320.
We will ignore all of the other potential reasons for this exercise, like raw materials have been arriving late, machinery is faulty, you rely on another person’s good performance etc.

Your boss isn’t pleased, doesn’t want any excuses and says, “if you don’t make 500 by the end of the month you’re out!”
I think this would constitute negative reinforcement.

However, what does the individual do?
He or she knows they are underperforming but they clearly have little motivation.
The person knows he or she could happily produce 700 widgets in a month if they really wanted to.

So what happens?
They have 3 weeks to go to the end of the month and coast along until the deadline is imminent and then there is a burst of activity to reach the target of 500. Then having avoided the consequence they stop.

If this was a sales situation the individual may actually ‘sell’ 600 units but only mention 500 to keep 100 for the next month’s total.
This sort of behaviour can be quite common.

Even in this environment why doesn’t the person produce 700 to please the boss?
Firstly, he may not want to do so, full stop.
Secondly, the individual will realise that if he or she produces 500 on a regular basis the ‘goal’ will eventually be raised anyway, so why exacerbate the situation?

Hence, negative reinforcement will always generate short term gains at the expense of higher performance in the long run.
In this situation there is evidence that setting goals actually diminishes performance.

Spotting it

There are many obvious clues to spotting negative reinforcement in the work place (or elsewhere).

  • The classic example is the meeting of targets as indicated above with a rush towards the deadline
  • Similarly if performance dramatically levels out when a goal is reached
  • If you modify conditions or remove some barriers within a task and performance drops you can be pretty certain that people are only doing it because they have to

If you monitor a task in some fashion, for example, by video, personal presence etc and you remove this condition people may well stop working so hard. Clearly, in such a case there is no motivation to maintain performance in this situation. That is, the negative consequence has been removed.

Ask anyone in the organisation what they do for positive reinforcement. If there is no strategy for positive reinforcement you are only likely to observe negative reinforcement.
An environment where negative reinforcement rules probably goes hand in hand with negative comments suggesting a general unhappiness.

Using it

We know that negative reinforcement gives short term gains and behaviour stops when the threat of the consequence has been removed.
On this basis negative reinforcement seems to be the poor relation in motivation.
However, there are times when it can be very useful.

Common use

It is used by people virtually everyday to remove negative consequences.

  • If you feel hungry you eat just enough to alleviate the problem
  • You experience a pain and go to the doctor to improve the condition
  • Its cold and you put on an extra layer of clothing
  • The car battery is flat and you recharge it


Before you can implement positive reinforcement by applying a particular consequence the person has to have completed a desired behaviour at least once.
For some people the only way to get this first desired behaviour may be to use a negative reinforcement technique.

So what happens once this behaviour is being carried out?

Well, if the manager just thinks that he or she has solved the problem performance is likely to drop and revert to the previous level.

It is vitally important for the manager to maintain performance by changing to positive reinforcement.
The manager must show appreciation of every little success which sends the correct signal to the individual that his or her efforts are really appreciated.