Behavioral Psychology is a well-known method used across the world for everything from training dogs to treating phobias. B.F. Skinner is one of the most widely recognized contributors to Behaviorism and brought us the idea of “operant conditioning”—the idea that we can condition ourselves and others through the use of reinforcements.  Operant conditioning suggests that we can systematically extinguish or increase a particular behavior through the use of negative reinforcements, positive reinforcements, or even the absence of reinforcements.

As a matter of fact, it is a method of practice I am currently using on myself to exorcise my fear of spiders … to desensitize myself to those gnarly eight-legged pests!

“A behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future. “

- B.F. Skinner

Loosely translated, this becomes one of my favorite well-known mantras …

Behavior rewarded is behavior repeated.

Is it horrible to confess that I’ve used this as a marriage tool as well?  My most amazing husband (and even more amazing father to our two young daughters) is inherently a giving, loving, and nurturing person.  There are, of course, habits that as newlyweds (now 12 years ago) were not so appealing.  I won’t reveal what those habits were but they were not salacious by any means.  When he would do things that I preferred over his other habits, I showered him with praise. Over time, those behaviors replaced bad habits.  To this day, I shower him with praise and gratitude for behavior that I would like to see repeated.  This exercise, though purposive, is also genuine…in that I am truly grateful for what he is and does.  That being said, he still has some habits that I’d like to change, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual.  But like all marriages and all relationships, we are a work-in-progress.  Doing that work and endeavoring to become stronger and better together is what will define our success.

I’ve begun to use these behavioral methods as a parenting tool as well with my three- and five-year old daughters.  They are learning about “choices,” and when they make a healthy choice in food or a good choice in behavior, I actively, audibly, and frequently praise them for it. Further, I ensure I am clear about exactly what it is I am praising. Giving specific, consistent praise and feedback is critical. I have found that not only does this encourage them to think through their choices, it helps to ensure repetition of making good choices and engaging in desirable behavior.  It is my hope that good choices and behaviors will become a habit that exists in my absence. The jury is out on whether or not this will have a positive lasting effect on them…since the true result won’t be seen for years to come.  However, what studies consistently indicate (as validated by experience) is that the use of reinforcement (specifically positive rewards in the form of praise, gratitude, and the occasional tangible award such as an allowance or a treat), certainly has greater impact than punishment (specifically the addition of an aversive stimulus, such as putting them in “time out.”).

Skinner is a natural companion to the world of managing others.  Managers (versus Leaders) work to ensure tasks get done, milestones are reached, and deadlines are met.  Leaders inspire their workers to achieve. Behaviorism is where the two align…where the tactical meets the inspirational.  Our success as tactical managers is in part predicated on our success as leaders…inspiring our employees to achieve beyond what they thought themselves capable of.

So now, why is it that in the workplace there is almost an eerie silence in the air when good work is done or when employees go above and beyond?  In this economy, employees are being tasked with doing more and more…and more…with the same or less resources.  This means many workplace activities are what we call “stretch exercises,” which are activities outside the usual day-to-day functions and which stretch and bend us to the very limits of what we can do without actually breaking.

When I hear of a department having high turnover, my first instinct is to look towards management to understand why.  Often times, I am given “excuses”—left for better pay, better opportunity, life balance, or the ubiquitous “personal reasons”.  But the sad truth, people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their managers. This is a popular Human Resources maxim because, to put it bluntly, it is true.  Many articles cite the “Top 10 Reasons Employees Quit.” If you pay attention, many employees quit simply due to lack of recognition from management.  The retention rate would likely increase if employees felt valued/recognized for their contribution and hard work, if they felt their manager was a champion for them, if they believed their manager truly saw their effort and recognized what they were doing despite the obvious lack of raises, bonuses.

I have been challenged on this “theory.”  Managers will tell me that employees leave because the company has not given raises in x-number of years.  They tell me that the company has tightened their belt and will not authorize additional head count, etc.  I counter that argument with one question, “What have YOU done for them lately?”  Direct recognition and reward lies in the hands of an employee’s immediate management.  If we want employees to continue with their stretch exercises, continue achieving, continue making sacrifices for the good of the company, then we must reward that behavior when we see it.

Behavior rewarded is behavior repeated.

Recognition for contributions and hard work doesn’t just come in the form of raises or bonuses.  When an employee’s career has stagnated, can you offer opportunities for skills growth via cross training or in-sessions? Have you outwardly noted how proud you are of them and how grateful you are that they are there and working as a team?  Do you at least orally and publicly praise them for their achievements?  Do you reward the team’s accomplishments by making the workplace fun or by having inexpensive celebrations of joint milestones achieved (pizza party, potluck, cake)?  How about starting a peer recognition trophy that employees pass onto their peers when they witness something great? Do you share the “wins” in emails/announcements/employee newsletters?

If what those managers said were true, a company—any company—in this economy especially, would be bleeding great talent from all departments; yet, this is not the case.  Again, typically, bleeding occurs from one particular department and again, in large part, due to the silence or inaction of managers when an employee achieves and goes above and beyond what the job description requires of them.

Conversely and ironically, managers often DO reward the WRONG behavior, which results in repetition of that undesirable behavior.  Some people avoid conflict like the plague … trite but true.  Their inability to address a problem results in silence. Silence is a lack of reinforcement … silence implies consent which ensures the behavior will be repeated. Further, not addressing the issues when they arise passively rewards an employee for that behavior … also working to ensure it is repeated.  When high performing employees who hear nothing for their good actions see poorly performing employees not be reprimanded for their poor actions, their morale and desire to perform at a high level declines.

Behavior rewarded is behavior repeated.

This is where the concept “pay for performance” becomes critical.  High-performing employees who achieve and go the extra proverbial mile ought to receive higher pay and levels of praise than their lesser-performing counterparts.  Furthermore, the gap between the “reward” and praise from one end of the performance spectrum to the other should be significant enough to inspire the high achievers to continue their performance while inspiring the poor performers to improve.

There are also managers who are silent during times of high performance or achievement.  These same managers use various forms of punishment when the employees’ performance dips (perhaps due to lack of praise) or when there is a rare error.  “Kick’em while they’re down and don’t help them up…”

I’d like to more concretely distinguish between reinforcement and punishment. Any reinforcement (positive or negative) is a consequence which functions to reinforce the behavior, hence, increasing the frequency of that behavior.  Positive reinforcement occurs when the desired behavior is followed by a reward.  Negative reinforcement, occurs when a desired behavior is followed by the removal of an irritant. For example, if coming to work on time stops your manager from yelling at you, you will likely continue to come to work on time.  Any punishment (positive or negative) is a consequence which functions to weaken a behavior; hence, decreasing the frequency of that behavior.  Positive punishment (“punishment”) is the introduction of a negative consequence/condition after a particular behavior while negative punishment (“penalty”) is the removal of something desirable.

Studies indicate that reinforcements have a longer impact than punishment.  Lack of reinforcement may indicate to the high performer that his/her hard work and accomplishments are inconsequential, hence functioning to extinguish desired behavior.  Lack of reinforcement may function as positive reinforcement to poor performance, hence increasing it. Many managers I have seen employ punishment in the form of public reprimands, berating comments, finger pointing, blame, etc.  Skinner believed, as do I, that lasting change to behavior occurs with positive reinforcement.  In contrast, punishment only results in temporary change followed by resentment and disengagement. In short, beating someone over the head in an effort to get them to achieve will eventually lead to their rebellion and/or departure…neither of which is an optimal outcome.

This does not mean that management should not address issues in a respectful yet purposeful manner. However, it is important to readdress the importance of consistency to the consequences.  It takes courage to address an issue, as well as compassion to address it in a meaningful manner geared towards changing behavior.  This may mean informal coaching, an individual development plan, formal written disciplinary counseling, or eventually termination.  If done respectfully, your other employees will see it (though they ought not to, employees do talk) and you will reinforce the rapport you have built with them, and the reputation you should have as one who embraces “fair-play”.  I mentioned earlier that all relationships are a work-in-progress.  This includes the work relationship between a manager and his/her employee(s).  Relationships need nurturing and tending to.  Part of this is ensuring the other party feels valued when value is given.  From what I’ve seen in my many years of Human Resources practice, like a child to a parent, employees want their managers to feel “proud” of them, they crave recognition/reward, and they don’t like disappointing others. Rewarding the behavior we want to see in a positive manner creates the desire to continue…and perhaps, do more. It helps an employee feel like he/she “matters” and contributes to the overall success of the department and company.  We must be managers and leaders…both.  Rewarding good behavior inspires our employees to achieve, and ensures that successes are repeated.

by Lalita B. Nordquist, SPHR, MA, MDR

Lalita Nordquist is a Vice President of Human Resources at an Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Company (Inc. 5000 designation years: 2007 through 2011). She and her team of 17 serve a client base of around 1500 employees across 7 states with business operations. Ms. Nordquist is also a Master’s graduate of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University’s School of Law as well as a Master’s graduate from Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology.