Ensuring that positive reinforcement is a part of your company culture will motivate your employees in the simplest way possible: When they do well, they’re rewarded. Easy, right? Let’s dig in.

The Psychology of it All

BF Skinner’s operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through reward and punishments for behavior (we will focus on the rewards). With operant conditioning, an employee makes an association between a particular behavior (or task/project) and a consequence (this can be good OR bad. We are focusing on the good). Skinner concluded that behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (or strengthened). 

Let’s talk about reinforcers. Reinforcers are responses from an environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. As the behavior is repeated, it is often repeated well, increasing in quality each occurrence.

Reinforcers can be either extrinsic rewards or intrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards are external forces, they come from the outside. Intrinsic rewards are intangible. Examples of extrinsic rewards would be the salary for a position, promotions, bonuses, and other perks and benefits. Intrinsic rewards would be praise, encouragement, and empowerment of your employees. Incentives/reinforcers can be either financial or non-financial. It has been found that both extrinsic and intrinsic positive reinforcement is positively linked with the performance of employees. Positive reinforcement is the act of praising good effort in the workplace. Consistent acknowledgment of excellent performance improves workplace morale and provides your staff with a sense of worth. In order to make your reinforcements most effective, Forensic Magazine gives this advice and then some:

  • Be specific in what you’re reinforcing and give your employee concrete information about what he/she did right. This way, it will be more likely to happen again!
  • Reinforce immediately, often, but unpredictably. You don’t necessarily want to keep your staff on their toes, but you want them to be pleasantly surprised!
    • Regular reinforcement that comes too often can fail to motivate as it will become expected. Frequent, but somewhat random reinforcement is much more effective.
  • Be sincere and show genuine appreciation for your employee’s achievement!
  • Personalize the reinforcement. Make the reward special to that employee. Don’t be general, as their performance was not general!

Let’s dive deeper into some positive reinforcement examples.

Extrinsic: Performance-based incentives

Giving your employee a well-deserved pay raise after their consistent exemplary performance would be an example of an extrinsic reinforcer. Financial compensation (and bonuses) are an outside force pushing your employees to do better. As your employee succeeds and progresses through their career at your company, they will be happy in doing so because they see that their hard work is appreciated and subsequently provides them with the financial means that they deserve. To the tune of performance-based incentives, encourage a little friendly competition amongst your staff! Provide a bonus if a team member sells a certain amount, lands a deal, or completes a task/project ahead of schedule! Your employees already strive to be great, give them even more of a reason to!

Extrinsic: Perks

Another extrinsic reinforcer would be perks such as snacks, meals, and company swag! Providing your employees with free food is a basic perk that the majority of companies have begun to offer. Everyone loves a good snack. Don’t let your employees go hungry on account of their hard work. A bag of Cheetos will help your marketing coordinator through their email campaigns! A t-shirt wouldn’t hurt your business development specialist’s company pride! Encourage your employees to rep their company swag on Casual Fridays!

Intrinsic: Encouragement, praise, and empowerment

Ensure that your employees are getting recognition and praise for their accomplishments in the workplace. Being acknowledged for hard work keep your team motivated to work even harder and strive to be the best! Being appreciated is a common goal for most. Furthermore, public recognition is most effective. Sharing successes publicly give employees their time to feel like a superstar. Make an announcement or a toast to a team member that has been MVP lately. Furthermore, you’ll find it effective to reward high-performing employees with more responsibility and independence. Do not let your star players remain stagnant when they consistently go above and beyond your expectations! Reinforcing your top performers will keep them happy and productive.

Lastly, It is crucial to tap into an employee’s behavioral/personality profile in order to determine which type of positive reinforcement will be most effective for them and their work style. Just because one employee enjoys free snacks in the break room, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it will encourage them to work harder.

What are some reinforcers at your current or past businesses that you deem notable? What were your perks like? What do you think was most effective for you personally?