How to Harness the Motivational Power of Positive Reinforcement
This guest blog post was contributed by the team at Bonusly, a platform that creates a new way for to colleagues to reward each other for doing great work. Bonusly’s microbonuses are a timely and meaningful form of recognition that are right in line with Rocketrip’s incentives-based approach to motivating smart spending.
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.
At Bonusly we help companies strengthen their organizational cultures through positive reinforcement. We’ve distilled some of what we’ve learned into a few tips and techniques that will help you get started.
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.”
Bill Simms, Jr. described this phenomenon in a recent article he wrote for Entrepreneur:
“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.”
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. In order 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
As Matthew Granwich, et al. explain in their American Psychological Association article:
“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.”
In addition to performance benefits, there are often significant improvements to areas like employee retention, as Kim Cameron et al. explain in their research published with the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business:
“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.”
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?
Bonusly published an entire guide dedicated to answering that question, but here are a few simple, yet crucial points to keep in mind when giving recognition:
- Give recognition frequently, and in 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:
- Think of something one of your colleagues did recently that made a positive impact on you, or your organization.
- Recognize and praise them for that contribution publicly.
- Encourage your peers to follow your example.
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.
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.
Positive reinforcement frameworks can have a powerful effect on a number of 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, this is an excellent place to start.