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Positive reinforcement part 2

Positive v negative

Positive reinforcement is good for motivation.
If it’s so good why isn’t it used more often?
There are some very good reasons for this.

It’s easy to be negative

Establishing a system of positive reinforcement can take time. Why bother with setting this up when a quick piece of negative reinforcement (or punishment and penalty) will give immediate results?
As far as the boss is concerned he has achieved what he wants and feels good and hence achieves his own positive reinforcement.
This is PIC [positive, immediate and certain]. (see model behaviour)

Trying to use positive reinforcement needs time. This may eventually be successful and yield a positive consequence but it is uncertain. This would be PFU [positive, future and uncertain]. (see model behaviour)

Poor choice of consequence

When a manager tries to use positive reinforcement and it fails, he or she may give up, as clearly it doesn’t work.
However, all reinforcement must work by definition; it may just be reinforcing the wrong behaviour.

Many managers choose a consequence on a generic basis of ‘one size fits all’. We know this will not work.
Everyone is different and you will need to tailor the consequence to the individual.

Many consequences do not work in the long run.
Money may improve motivation for some and have little effect for another. At what level would you set the monetary gain?
Could you have got the same result with a lower amount?
Will you need to keep increasing the amount to maintain performance?

In general, these sort of incentives will only work in the short term.


Many consequences are used very commonly in organisations.
They are often recognised as performance based, for example, profit sharing schemes and other benefits.
The trouble with these is they actually do not really require individual effort to be gained, many will appear automatically.
Many such fringe benefits may be calculated using some formula which bares no resemblance to individual performance.

These incentives that have little connection to individual performance are said to be ‘non-contingent’.
Conversely, those that require a behaviour before you get the reward are said to be ‘contingent’.

Most of the reward systems in an organisation will be non-contingent.

Too busy

You may well agree that positive reinforcement is a good thing but if you don’t do it immediately its impact can be dramatically reduced. The reinforcement is more powerful if it is carried out straight away.
If you delay too long it sends out the wrong signals.

In order to give out praise immediately for an increase in performance you have to be there.
This is why ‘management by walking about’ can be a powerful leadership (see The Complete Leadership package) tool. It provides plentiful opportunities for positive reinforcement.

Motivation requires that you make the time (see The Complete Time Management package) to do it properly.
For many managers it is not that they don’t reinforce, it is just that they don’t do it immediately which affects the motivation of their team.


Changing behaviour can not be gained by a single example of positive reinforcement.
The consequence has to be maintained over a period of time in order to be effective and reduce the chances of a return to the undesirable behaviour.

In the case of learned behaviour you may be positively reinforced by the pleasure of improvement.
The more you practice the better you get and the more the behaviour of regular practice is reinforced.
If you don’t enjoy the end result you don’t practice and poor performance is the inevitable result.

Many learned skills require a lot of reinforcement over many years.
However, what might take a long time for children should work a lot faster for adults although the principle is the same.


You could monitor and keep a log for each time you reinforce (positive) and for each time you use a negative reinforcement, punishment or penalty technique.

The punishment and penalty techniques should take up no more than about 20% of the whole.
If you are using too much punishment try to increase the amount of positive and negative reinforcement.

Lack of consequence

If reward is in short supply people will start to compete for it.
If positive reinforcement is few and far between people will often exaggerate their behaviour to get recognition.
Under these conditions some people will resort to political activities to gain an advantage This type of competition can prove unhealthy for an organisation.

Some rewards, for example, plaques, employee of the month or year etc can definitely cause problems.
Most people know whether the recipient deserves it or not.
The focus can be on the award and not on the performance that merited it.

Stick to the positive

Giving positive reinforcement can be quite easy once you look for the positives.
Many managers will unfortunately use praise as a stage to introduce a negative comment.

If a person comes to you with a piece of work and you tell the individual how great it was to get it on time,
how good the quality was and how it was pitched at just the right level, that person will be feeling excellent.
He or she will feel that the extra effort they put in was actually worth it.

If you then qualify all of these positive statements with a few negative comments it won’t go down well.
What if the manager says, “The only area you might want to focus on is the summary. Have you read the company procedure for writing reports?”
The manager may say this with the best intentions but the effect will be entirely opposite.

Other managers are aware of this negative aspect and will often support the negative comment with another positive afterwards.
This ‘sandwich’ approach doesn’t make the negative comment any more palatable.

In this situation, most people would not remember the positive comments only the negative. Psychologically some people will take the comment on board and improve.
Unfortunately, others will dwell on the negative comments which will affect some of their other activities.

Keep negative comments separate and to the point.