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Positive reinforcement part 1

What is it?

When some one carries out a behaviour they have a capacity for a particular level of performance.
In the main, most people work below their maximum performance, they do only what is necessary.
They are aware that they can produce extra effort for the task in hand.
This extra effort is known as ‘discretionary effort’.

Ideally, you would want all of your workforce to perform at the higher level and use this ‘discretionary effort’.
People will put in this extra effort when they enjoy what they are doing, that is, when they are receiving positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is very common in every day activities most of which you never have to think about.
These are things like turning on a radio and hearing a tune, pressing your key fob to see the car open etc.

In technology positive reinforcement is used a lot by making features user friendly.
If you open any piece of software you will see icons on the tool bars at the top of a page. Many of these icons have become standardised for ease of use.
The ‘open file’, ‘save file’, ‘print’ icon etc are now self explanatory owing to the little pictures on them making them easy to use.
We become less frightened and suspicious of computer technology because the positive reinforcement in this case make us want to continue using the programmes.


There are two basic types of positive reinforcement.
Those that come naturally and those that are created.
The example of the icons and the key fob above are natural and will happen automatically.

Created positive reinforcement requires the intervention of a person, for example, a smile, a shrug, a telephone call or a card sent for congratulation etc.

There are two common types of created reinforcement which are ‘social’ and ‘tangible’.

Social involves a person doing or saying something to another.
Tangible reinforcements are what their name suggests they are something you can touch.
Tangible reinforcement (see Reward System – part 1) should only be given in the company of a social reinforcement.

Any tangible reinforcement should support the behaviour and social reinforcement and not become the centre of an event in its own right.

Generic approach?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could come up with a positive reinforcement so good that it could be applied to all situations?
Unfortunately, this could never happen as we are a bunch of individuals with different tastes and desires.
This means that what makes one person tick will stop another in their tracks.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Thus, the generic approach will not work.
It is very tempting that having found a ‘good’ positive reinforcement we try it on everyone.
This is unlikely to work well as everyone is different.

The best method is to try to find the key positive reinforcer for each individual.
This is naturally time consuming but will pay dividends in the long run.
Motivation is different for each person.

Finding them

The major way to establish positive reinforcers are:

  • Try out ways and see what happens
  • Observe people
  • Ask people

The first method is probably the most common and involves considering what a good positive reinforcement may be and then trying it out and seeing if it has the desired effect on frequency or rate of behaviour.

Remember, that your idea of good positive reinforcement may be nothing like that which the individual would choose.

Some to try in this area are praise, listening, attention to what the person is doing.
All of these indicate to the person that you value their contribution.
This sort of behaviour is fundamental to good leadership (see The Complete Leadership package)

If you observe people and what they do in their spare time you will begin to see what they see as motivation.
If you can tap some of these interests and use them for positive reinforcement it may prove very useful.

The easiest way is to ask people isn’t it?
The trouble with this method is many fold.

  • They may not know what would be a good consequence or positive reinforcement
  • They may be too embarrassed to tell you
  • If they ask for too much and it doesn’t arrive their attitude may be negative
  • You may not be trusted and expectations may not be met

Asking is usually only relevant once you have tried something out.
In other words, you can ask the person if the positive reinforcement worked or not, and if not why?


When people have a choice of tasks to carry out then, what ever they choose to do most frequently, decide on the consequence and use it as a positive reinforcer for those tasks they choose to do less often.
This was first proposed by David Premack, a psychologist.

Simply put, you will get a reward for doing something you like less.

This approach is often used for a list of tasks to do.
Create a list in the order in which you would prefer to tackle the tasks, then start at the bottom.
In this way every time you complete an activity you will move on to another that you prefer more.

This simple approach with a bit of effort can improve motivation.