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How to Harness the Motivational Power of Positive Reinforcement

“We know from extensive research that human behavior is shaped by its consequences and that providing positive consequences for employee performance is one of the most powerful ways to enhance that performance.”

Matthew Granwich et al.

Developing a more engaged workforce makes good, bottom-line business sense. Organizations with engaged, dedicated employees routinely outperform their competition in a host of business metrics but inspiring that dedication has been a challenge for many. 

The Shortcomings of Negative and Neutral Reinforcement

Historically, communications employees receive from managers and senior leadership have predominantly been either:

• Nonexistent “…”

• Neutral, “We’ll need your report on the meaning of life by Thursday.”

• Negative, “That report you published on the meaning of life had three typos.”

Why is that such a problematic approach to feedback?

It represents a lot of wasted time and effort on both sides. While negative reinforcement can motivate people to avoid the pain of further negative reinforcement, it fails to encourage the repetition of desired behaviors and outcomes because it doesn’t provide any explicit guidance as to what those behaviors and outcomes might be.

In essence, negative reinforcement can help someone understand where and why they’re failing to meet expectations, but not how to meet or exceed them.

That inefficiency is costly, and those costs can compound quickly.

A neutral or negatively-biased approach places a greater cognitive load on employees. To find success, they’re forced to do extra work to answer questions like, “What does success look like in this organization?” before they can begin to develop the strengths and practices their team would find most valuable.

Developing and leveraging those strengths without direction is a lot like stumbling in the dark to find a light switch: you’ll probably find it eventually, but it would be a lot easier if someone pointed it out. 

Leveraging Positive Reinforcement

So how do you provide a positive reinforcement framework that maximizes those benefits?

The key is to recognize meaningful contributions.

Recognition is a simple, yet powerful method of infusing positive reinforcement into your work environment. It’s also a highly effective foundation for delivering other elements of a positive reinforcement framework.

How do you know you’re providing effective recognition?

Here are a few simple, yet crucial points to keep in mind when giving recognition

  • • Give recognition frequently, and at the moment.
  • • Be specific about what you’re recognizing, and why it’s valuable to you or the team. 
  • • Tie the contribution you’re recognizing to organizational goals and values.
  • • Make the recognition you give visible to others.
  • • Empower and encourage everyone to give recognition freely.

Each time someone is recognized for their contributions it provides them with a few crucial motivational factors, and some actionable insights:

  • • The work they’re doing is valuable and appreciated by others.
  • • They fill an important role in their organization.
  • • Certain contributions they make have a stronger organizational impact.

Supporting a recognition-rich organizational culture doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking. There are some easy, yet meaningful steps you can take toward building and promoting that type of culture right now:

  1. 1. Think of something one of your colleagues did recently that made a positive impact on you, or your organization.
  2. 2. Recognize and praise them for that contribution publicly.
  3. 3. Encourage your peers to follow your example.
  4. 4. Repeat.

Start small by consciously incorporating positive recognition into your one on one interactions with colleagues, then look to build on the results of this experiment. 

Illuminate Purpose

Someone who sees the purpose in their work will naturally receive positive feedback from the results of that work, and the impact it has on others. That can be an extraordinarily powerful, and self-sustaining source of motivation.

Sounds great, but what if you work in an uninspiring industry?

Imperative’s Arthur Woods put it best when he explained that purposeful professions aren’t relegated to any specific type of work. You can find purpose in any job, and let that purpose guide you to exceptional results.

Although there are professions whose purpose is inherently more visible, there is a deep purpose to be found in any profession, if you’re willing to seek it out.

Whether you’re literally putting out fires and saving lives every day as a first responder, helping a struggling student excel, caring for your family, helping someone buy their first home, or making a pizza so good that it will bring tears of joy to anyone who tastes it, there’s always great purpose to be found in the work you do.

You may not be able to give someone’s job a greater purpose, but you can help kick-start a virtuous cycle by illuminating it through positive feedback and recognition.

Each time you congratulate someone on a big win or praise their contributions, you’re giving them more insight into the value and purpose behind their work, and helping them establish their own nearly inexhaustible well of intrinsic motivation.

Reinforcement reframes accountability.

In addition to a greater sense of purpose, modern employees crave more autonomy over the work they do and the environment they do it in. This autonomy can take many forms, from more flexible working hours to greater choice over methodologies and toolsets.

When employees are empowered to make meaningful decisions about their work and see their contributions in the context of a significant purpose, a fundamental shift starts to take place.

Employees graduate from being held to accountability, to embracing accountability

That’s significant, because employees who embrace accountability often hold themselves to a higher standard than any supervisor would, and they achieve this higher standard without the friction that a highly prescriptive approach to management often imparts.

Many Rocketrip users have likely experienced this phenomenon already. Employees are given greater autonomy over their travel itinerary, yet instead of choosing the most expensive option, their flight and accommodation choices are frequently less costly than the standard they’d otherwise be held to. They receive positive feedback in the form of a tangible reward and the knowledge that they’re making a positive impact on their organization’s bottom line.

Travel spending is one of many areas where reframing accountability can produce truly meaningful results. 

In Conclusion

Positive reinforcement frameworks can have a powerful effect on several important business metrics. Despite their great potential for impact, implementing these frameworks often represents a minimal investment of resources. If you’re working to improve your organizational culture, Rocketrip’s solution is an excellent place to start.

“As business leaders we usually do a really good job telling our employees what they do wrong. But we forget to tell them what they do right.”

Bill Simms Jr.

“Businesses with higher scores on positive practices experienced a better work environment, more effective relationships with management, and greater numbers of employees intending to stay with the firm.”

Kim Cameron et al.
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