Friday, September 24, 2010

Postive Reinforcement Works 100% of the Time!

If you've served in a supervisory capacity (or as a parent) you've undoubtedly learned that people don't always do what you asked them to. Imagine if that wasn't the case. Most managers have a pretty good idea what needs to be done; they just can't seem to get people to do it dependably. How much more successful would your firm be if managers could get consistent follow-through from their staff?

I have the solution: positive reinforcement. I know, that hardly sounds like the breakthrough strategy you might have expected. Perhaps you question the potential impact of a few more "attaboys" around the office. Or maybe you've actually tried it and didn't find that it improved performance all that much. If that's the case, you don't really understand positive reinforcement--because it works 100% of the time.

Whoa, you're likely thinking, nothing works all the time! Oh but it does, when the action is defined by the result. In other words, it's not positive reinforcement if it doesn't work. That's self evident in the definition:
  • Positive reinforcement is a favorable consequence that increases the frequency of a specific behavior.
I discussed this in my last post in relationship to quality. I noted that we naturally repeat behaviors that produce favorable results. So if you are seeking a specific behavior that will improve performance, you want to reinforce that behavior in some positive fashion. Simple in concept but, alas, not so simple in execution.

The first challenge is to determine what action on your part will positively reinforce the desired behavior. Unfortunately, what reinforces behavior for one person may not work for another. To make matters still more complicated, what served as effective reinforcement for an individual in the past may not work today.

But these challenges don't make positive reinforcement impractical to implement. Numerous companies have enjoyed dramatic improvements in business performance through application of positive reinforcement. It works, but it's not easy--nor natural for many technical practitioners. So were do you start? A few principles to keep in mind:

Find what works for others, not what works for you. As noted above, the effectiveness of different reinforcers varies among different people. A common mistake that managers make is to assume that what is reinforcing to them should work for their staff. Not true. Some people like public recognition, others don't. Some respond to monetary rewards, others not so much.

So how do you find what works for others? The first step is to simply to pay attention to what reinforces them and what doesn't. Next, try different approaches to see what works. Most attempts will work because people generally find your efforts at reinforcement to be reinforcing. If you're sincere in trying to provide positive reinforcement, others usually give you the benefit of the doubt. Lastly, you can ask your staff what is reinforcing. But this is not the first choice for a variety of reasons, including the potential for inadvertently setting up false expectations.

Make the reinforcement contingent on the desired behavior. If one can achieve the same positive consequence without engaging in the prerequisite behavior, that undermines the value of the reinforcer. To check your firm for this problem, consultant Aubrey Daniels encourages making a list of the reinforcers and rewards your firm uses to influence performance. Put each into the following statement: "You can get (reinforcer / reward) only if you __________." Daniels notes that you will typically be surprised at how few reinforcers are contingent upon the behaviors you want.

It's important to make the connection. Many of the positive reinforcements that companies try are ineffective largely due to what Daniels calls "contingency error." Take profit-sharing programs, for example. These are supposed to incentivize better performance. But employees recognize that the connection between individual performance and profit-sharing is pretty loose. Effective positive reinforcers are both contingent and consistent.

Focus on providing immediate reinforcement. It is well established that immediate, certain reinforcers are far more effective than future, uncertain ones. Again, we see why the most common financial incentives are mostly ineffective in improving performance. Don't assume that the value of such rewards overcomes the effect of delaying them. Which is more valuable, your health or eating that second helping of desert? Of course, your health is. But diets routinely fail because the benefits are future and uncertain. On the other hand, the payoff from that piece of pie is immediate and certain.

Research has found that the most effective leaders and managers are those who reinforce people while they are working. That's what coaches do, and it's the primary reason that coaching yields much higher performance than traditional management. Most managers will argue that they don't have time to reinforce others on the job. That's a matter of priorities. If you are a leader or manager, what more important responsibility do you have than helping others perform at a higher level? That's what I call the "Time Investment Principle."

Positive reinforcement is not so trite as offering up a few attaboys. Nor is it so detached as pointing everyone to the firm's annual incentive program. It involves actively engaging with others and helping create favorable outcomes in response to the things they do that you want to see them continue to do. It always works, although it's not always easy to find and do what works. But those who have leveraged the power of positive reinforcement have realized substantial success.

If you want to learn more about this approach, I encourage you to check out the works of Aubrey Daniels. Two books in particular: (1) Bringing Out the Best in People and (2) Measure of a Leader.

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