Going from Punishment to Positive Reinforcement

Going from Punishment to Positive Reinforcement

This is the fourth in the “Shift” series of step-by-step changes that help companies move to the next level of competence.

Everyone comes to work wanting to do an honest day’s job. Rare is the individual who checks in at 8 am every morning scheming to “nap” away his 8-hour workday. Yet, there are organizations today that practice a “management-by-fear” approach believing that employee-fear (of management) will get the results they desire. This may have been a management technique many years ago, but it is doubtful if it ever got employees doing more than just the minimum to get by.

These days, there is tacit recognition of the value of the “engaged employee”. All behavior is a function of the consequences of that behavior. People work a certain way according to the perceived rewards. In order to get employees to be more engaged in the activities of the company and thereby have him/her pull as a team, there is a need to understand some basics of motivation.

Prominent among them is the need for recognition. People have a need to be recognized for the work they do and take some pride in executing it. Hence an operating system of trust, encouragement, recognition and reward needs to be in place to acknowledge those who meet or exceed established performance measures.

People have a need to be recognized for the work they do and take some pride in executing it.

Recognition that follows hot on the heels of a desired behavior (say, excellent performance) goes a long way in fostering more of the same kind of behavior. Recognition does not always imply monetary rewards. The mere fact that acknowledgement was given (especially in front of peers) in a timely manner is usually enough for others to emulate the behavior. The reverse can have unintended consequences. In one company, an employee suggestion box garnered several ideas each week for the first four months of its introduction. However, even though several of the ideas were acted upon, there was no formal recognition given to the idea originators. Within the next two months, idea suggestions dried up completely.

Another form of positive reinforcement, one that breeds innovation and new ideas, is active-mentoring. Nobody plans to fail; there is always an element of risk in trying a new venture, working a new idea or setting a new tack. If the risk is well considered prior to implementation, the effect any failure could be minimized.

Criticizing failure will not foster an innovative spirit; indeed it will stifle it. Punishment syndrome forms the basis for disinterested behavior – where every mistake is reprimanded and employees feel intimidated or even neglected. If this is allowed to continue, it will impact the company”s performance in the long run – both financially and with respect to customer service.

If an error has been made, then the correct technique or preventive action should be demonstrated. Errors have root causes and addressing them jointly with staff input, should be the goal of every manager. In this manner, errors can be reduced and, more importantly, the message is clear…”don’t be afraid to try a new idea…and suggest additional ones!”

A nurturing environment (where positive attitudes are modeled) that is reinforced with employee engagement, employee empowerment and support will help establish the building blocks of a world class organization where a customer-focused culture can flourish.


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