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Decreasing behaviour

By mistake

Just to recap if you encourage behaviour the consequence must be reinforcement.
The only way to decrease or stop a behaviour is to use punishment or penalty (see Consequences – part 1).

Ideally, you will want to discourage poor performance.
The problem is, it is very easy to discourage good performance without realising it.

One of the main areas where people would want to eliminate poor performance is when a safety issue is involved, although there are many others. Punishment or penalty works well here because it is immediate and usually designed to stop the poor activity.

The above tend to be considered and are designed to have a particular affect, that is, stop the poor behaviour.
Many behaviours you will come across are not planned and are less easy to spot.
You can stop behaviours unintentionally.

A classic example of unintentionally stopping wanted behaviour is during a brain storm.
The idea of a brain storm is to generate ideas which are later discussed and reduced to a core of possible solutions to a particular defined problem.

One of the rules for the brain storm, stated upfront, is that there should be no criticism of the ideas as they are generated.
If this behaviour happens the ideas dry up rather rapidly.
This type of negative behaviour is quite common and just a negative look can have the same effect.

When you use either punishment or penalty it should be as part of a considered approach and not overused.
Although, for some issues (safety being one) delay may not be an option.

Does punishment work?

Remember, you can not change a poor behaviour by positive reinforcement.
This is because positive reinforcement improves the motivation for a good behaviour being repeated or carried out faster.
In other words, the good behaviour has to be seen in the first place before you can reinforce it.

So, the first step is to get rid of the poor behaviour which you do by punishment or penalty.
Once the poor behaviour has been removed there is no guarantee that the desired good behaviour will substitute it.
In some situations it is likely to be replaced with and equally poor or worse behaviour.

If you shout at someone, or threaten them with dismissal it will afford a different reaction for each individual.
Some may improve their performance with increased motivation, others may not care less and carry on with a negative approach or in extreme cases resort to sabotage.

In summary, if you don’t replace a poor behaviour with a good one and maintain positive reinforcement The poor performance will eventually return.

Reinforce continually

At last, you have finally managed to get the desired behaviour that you wished.
You are so relieved that you are more than happy to give some positive reinforcement.
Once this is done you walk off feeling really pleased with yourself, ready to tackle the next poor performer.
The system has worked.
You go back to see the same performer 1 month later only to find that things are back to the old poor performance levels.

Positive reinforcement will not work if you think that just one go will solve a poor performance problem.
This behaviour is fairly natural. The individual feels that although he or she is now working at the desired level or higher the lack of any response from a manager after the initial boost reflects their true interest in how they are valued.
A reversion to old performance levels is almost inevitable.


The removal of a positive reinforcement (or delaying it for some reason) is known as extinction.

This is a very common occurrence. Many new workers within a company begin with a lot of enthusiasm and if they are positively reinforced will perform well. They are keen to do things right. If ‘extinction’ then exists and that positive reinforcement is removed their performance quickly begins to drop. They learn quickly what level of performance is the norm.

Clearly, extinction can reduce the level of behaviour and thus can be used to stop unwanted behaviours.
This can be recognised in cases of behaviour that are positively reinforced by ‘attention’.

If a child throws a tantrum and gains attention in some way or a reward to stop this behaviour it is almost certainly going to continue.
However, if you choose to use extinction then the frequency of the unwanted behaviour will reduce and finally stop.
This should of course then be replaced by a positive reinforcement of the good behaviour.

A pattern

This form of behaviour often follows a pattern. When the person is expecting a positive reinforcement and it doesn’t occur there is often a sudden increase or exaggeration of the negative behaviour.

The next stage may see an emotional behaviour, in the case of a tantrum, in throwing a toy or other display of anger.
This behaviour will then continue at irregular time intervals until it stops.

Then for no apparent reason the negative behaviour may reappear.
The reason that people usually turn to is that ‘a leopard can’t change its spots’.
The truth is more likely to be that positive reinforcement for the new behaviour has stopped.

Extinction can be a tough road to follow and may not be for the faint hearted so beware.