Have you ever been in a work environment, or a personal relationship, where you mostly hear the negative?

Don’t do that.

Stop doing that.

It would have been better if…

The first two examples are obviously negative. The third might seem a bit more subtle. The good news is that the idea of positive or negative reinforcement has been studied forever, specifically with raising children. This blog post, written by a behavior consultant, illustrates positive and negative reinforcements and punishment nicely.

The Difference between Positive/Negative Reinforcement and Positive/Negative Punishment

The question is, how does this apply at work?

In my experience I’d say it applies pretty much the exact same way it applies at home. The manager typically doesn’t have training on how this works at work and so they do what they do at home. This might be what they’ve been experimenting with on their kids, or how they treat a significant other, or how they have been raised. You can imagine having a dozen managers who all have drastically different life experiences bringing those practices to work. The principles of behavior modification and influencing others remains the same but the execution of how to get behavior modification can be… well, sometimes appalling.

Some managers wield the power of their title too dangerously. Other managers are afraid to rock the boat, and much rather prefer to be peace makers and let things just play out. Either of these general philosophies will manifest in perhaps unintended positive or negative reinforcement, and be in contrast to the organizational culture.

This is simply confusing to employees.

A phrase my wife often tells me and the kids is “Tell me what you want instead of telling me what you don’t want.” Her message is that instead of saying “I don’t like this vegetable,” she would rather we say “Instead of that vegetable, can I get a scoop of ____?”

Snowfly Positive Reinforcement CommunicationThis way we are clear about our intentions, and what we want, instead of just complaining about something we don’t want.

Imagine you have a team member who does something that annoys the rest of the team…. say, they put their garbage can at the corner of their desk, instead of under their desk. No big deal, except where they put their garbage can is a common walkway to the kitchen.

How do you handle this, as a manager? Think about different positive reinforcement scenarios and contrast them with negative reinforcement scenarios.

This example might seem a little silly but I’m sure it is being played out in the workforce today.

I worked at a place where people were shamed into NOT reheating fish in the cafeteria microwave. Apparently some people think reheating fish can stink up the whole cafeteria, or office. If you were to choose that as your meal you would suffer a lot of underhanded comments directed at “whoever made that horrible choice.” Eventually no one reheated fish.

Intended consequence? Yes. No more fish smell.

Snowfly Fish MicrowaveBest way to accomplish it? Well, it depends on what kind of culture you want to promote.

Again, another silly example, but this fish conversation happens regularly in many organizations. It’s even become a bit of a pop culture joke… everyone knows how shameful it is to reheat fish at work.

What about some less boring examples, such as:

  • Getting to work on time.
  • Hitting your daily (weekly, monthly) goals
  • Getting complimented by a customers
  • Doing an act of kindness for a colleague
  • Doing a project right the first time (no rework required)
  • Asking for help from the right person

You could write a list with hundreds of things that you want from your team. The question is, how do you encourage and reward behavior change.

You can use, as they say, the stick… or you can use the carrot. This is simply to say you can use negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement. Whether it is subtle or overt, your team picks up on how you view them. You might not intend for them to feel like you are giving negative behavior. I think sometimes we do it without intending, or realizing. But they pick up on it.

The end goal is behavior modification. We want more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. Sure, you can scare people into doing what is right. If they don’t want the negative consequences then they don’t do behavior you don’t want. But at what price?

The outcome is the same, with regard to performance. People are at work on time, and they do their job. But in one scenario you get that outcome because of fear, while the other scenario you get the outcome from the very opposite of fear.

I would say that while the outcome is the same, the culture you are creating is either toxic (if it is fear based) or it is sustainable, if it is created from positive reinforcement. I’m not saying you need to coddle your team. This isn’t about coddling as much as it is respecting. Positive reinforcement doesn’t have to feel coddling or patronizing. The respectful culture you create, though, starts to permeate to every level. From the top down and the bottom up. People treat others with more respect. Colleagues and peers, customers and vendors, the biggest title and the smallest title, all feel respected.

Snowfly Manager ReceptionistThis is the kind of culture that lasts. This is a culture where others want to work (that is called employer brand). This is a culture where people want to stay (that is called retention). This is a culture where people give their all, and bring their best efforts to work (that is called employee performance). This is a culture that impacts the top and the bottom lines.

It comes from positive reinforcement. We geek out over this stuff. If you want to talk about how you can create a culture of positive reinforcement, let’s talk. Of course, Snowfly has tools and programs to help with that… whether it is employee recognition, manager recognition, peer recognition, intrinsic rewards, extrinsic rewards, incentives with gamification… we have the tools to help you.

Whether you are in the exploratory stages or you know you need a gamification experience that has tools based on positive reinforcement for sustained behavior change, we have ideas for you.

Contact us here


Jason Alba

Jason Alba

I'm passionate about building great cultures. I love respect in the workforce, especially respect that is earned. I love strategic management, leadership, and vision. I love healthy companies through profitability. I love employee engagement, employee performance, and employee satisfaction. I love how Snowfly can help YOUR organization work towards all of these things.

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