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Negative reinforcement part 2


Because the result of negative reinforcement tends to be immediate and you can see the apparent benefits there is a feeling that the manager must be in control of the situation.

  • Its easy and quick to implement
  • Its thus saves time
  • Thus it must save money, probably in unused extra labour or materials

It appears to be a win / win situation.

Most people would agree that the overly domineering manager who shouts all of the time to get what he wants has largely passed.
Much of project management (see The Complete Project Management package) and time management (see The Complete Time Management package) put the reliance on the individual to perform via empowerment, responsibilities and accountabilities etc.

The problem is the poor manager can use these perfectly valid techniques to apply his version of motivation through negative reinforcement.
Even if an individual is accountable for their own actions and behaviours it is very poor practice to ignore good performance by the absence of any positive reinforcement.


Strictly speaking monitoring is just an aspect of control.
If you follow the philosophy of negative reinforcement then you will be forced to keep an eye on things much more rigorously than you would by employing positive reinforcement.

This is because positive reinforcement encourages superior behaviour and a desire to perform at a level above what is required.

Monitoring is something you really want to minimise or eliminate.
In an ideal world if everyone was performing at and above a required level all tasks would be completed on time, at the correct cost and at the right quality.

  • It takes time (see The Complete Time Management package) to implement the monitoring system
  • It takes time to monitor the situation
  • It takes time to review the information and take any necessary action
  • Time is money, costs will escalate
  • Other work efficiency will drop as time available is lost
  • Budgets become hard to control
  • Performance will drop off any way once a target is reached

In extreme cases, whole layers of management will appear just to maintain a monitoring role that may not be necessary in the first place.

Many people will have experienced the syndrome of end of year spending just to use up a budget that would otherwise be left unspent.
Surely, if you are being efficient you try to carry out your duties under budget and get the appropriate reward, that is, a positive reinforcement.

In practice, if you don’t spend it the budget gets cut for the following year.
Ironically, a person who poorly manages his or her budget may actually get their budget increased if they can demonstrate need rather than inefficiency!

Once a target is reached performance will drop off or stop altogether under negative reinforcement, so making monitoring less useful in many areas. Knowing that this performance drop will occur many managers will ‘move the goal posts’.
This shows itself in targets that ‘stretch’ performance; they target 600 items per month as 500 should be easily manageable etc.

This is not an advantage to the manager as the person carrying out the task already knows that he or she could probably manage 700 or 800.
That is, the manager is not in control as he or she must always be aware of the target levels and continually try to raise the bar.

Performance is relative

If you work in a department or environment that is duplicated elsewhere, for example in another town, there will competition of performance targets being met.

If everyone is using negative reinforcement you are comparing like with like and your group may well be the best performing.
If someone then says you could do better with positive reinforcement the general reaction might be:

  • Why should I change we are in first position in terms of performance?
  • I can get results easily now with negative reinforcement why wait for what might be with positive reinforcement?
  • I already am using positive reinforcement as it works

The last comment demonstrates a lack of understanding of motivation factors.
If every other department then takes up positive reinforcement it would not be unusual to see them overtake you in performance.
You would not be able to keep up with your negative reinforcement approach as you would have reached your limits of performance.

An often overlooked aspect of negative reinforcement is that it relies on fear and retribution which people are continually trying to avoid.
This creates and unhealthy working environment and stress.

The problem is one of simple psychology.
If you avoid the unpleasant aspect of a negative consequence it is immediate and certain to occur.
Positive reinforcement is often based upon a future activity which may be uncertain to occur.

In summary, negative reinforcement generates many poor work place conditions with a limit on performance, whereas positive reinforcement relieves many stresses and has the potential to raise the level of performance.
It increases motivation to excel.