17 September, 2021

Using Positive Reinforcement to Boost Organizational Values

Positive reinforcement is a time-tested behavior modification technique that has been known to promote desirable behavior, especially among young adults and learners. It is based on the concept of operant conditioning in psychology- which dictates that behavior is influenced by the external consequences to one’s actions. In other words, rewards or punishments determine whether or not one is going to perform an action. This simple concept is the reason why children complete their homework, for example (to prevent a note from the teacher) or perform well in exams (to get a treat of their choice from parents). While the former is an example of negative reinforcement wherein an undesirable outcome was removed, the latter is that of positive reinforcement, wherein a desirable outcome followed an action.

Why Use Positive Reinforcement in the workplace?

As the name suggests, positive reinforcement is when an action is encouraged by means of a reward.  It can be effectively used as a method of employee motivation and has proven to be effective in promoting inspiration, creativity as well as developing lasting change in people. It also helps in boosting an individual’s self-esteem, thereby not just encouraging repetition but improvement. Most importantly, positive reinforcement has better outcomes for interpersonal relationships in the workplace, resulting in higher employee engagement and overall well-being.

Positive Reinforcement in Action

While its benefits have been known for a long time, workplaces have yet to realize the full potential of positive reinforcement. Following are some of the ways companies can start implementing it in their total rewards offerings:

  • Cultural Changes in Rewards

Managers have traditionally followed a conservative approach to employee appreciation, relying on cash compensation to keep employees motivated. However, the theory of operant conditioning states that instead of having a fixed schedule for reinforcement (eg-annual appraisal), it might be better to have a more spontaneous, random schedule for reinforcement or rewards. This will result in a faster response rate and form lasting habits among employees. Unlike fixed schedules, when responses slump after receiving a reward, in variable schedules, the energy remains at a high level throughout. Another factor improving response rate is reinforcement for a variety of positive actions, including adhering to the company’s value system. Thus, reward categories must be as comprehensive as possible to increase motivation levels among employees.

  • Quick, Relevant Options

Each employee has a unique take on what constitutes positive reinforcement. For example-, a cash commission would hold less value for a well-heeled senior executive than it would for a blue-collar employee. The degree of need determines the impact of the reward. This makes it necessary to customize employee rewards programs and offer freedom of choice when it comes to selecting one’s own reward. Besides, operant conditioning relies on creating a link between a positive action and reward. Therefore, the reward must be given immediately after a desirable action has been taken and should be commensurate to the employee’s efforts. This will help create a logical link between effort and result.

  • Variety of Rewards

Let’s go back to the example of children- if as a child, you received an ice-cream cone every time you did something good, an ice-cream would stop holding any value after the first few wins. Not to mention the money spent (and possible dental caries). Therefore, it would be better to plan a rewards structure that would ensure the reward retains its novelty and continues to motivate. An example would be to reserve various treats for certain milestones and using a pat on the back or a ‘Well Done’ for effort. In a similar way, it’s important to keep rewards relevant and interesting for your workforce. This can be done by mapping them to a points-based reward system that takes into account day-to-day behavior encouraging employees to work towards a certain number of points for reward redemption. Another way is to keep updating the reward catalog as per the changing demographics of the company, as is explained in another blog.

While behavioral psychology has advanced since the 20th century and it takes into account the role of intrinsic motivational factors, extrinsic motivation continues to hold a strong appeal on human psyche, motivating them to perform most actions. Moreover, external reinforcement that is positive and uplifting in nature helps bring out the best in your workforce and results in increased commitment and adherence to organizational values in the long term. Such reinforcement is best administered through a rewards and recognition platform that can help define, track and reward positive behavior.