The other day I was watching my 1.2 year old nephew playing with blocks. It was one of the toys where you need to put the different shaped blocks into the corresponding slot. He kept trying and failed at few attempts. Then he managed to put all the blocks into the slots and he started clapping with joy. We all also joined in to clap with him at his achievement. It was a practice at home to positively reinforce the little one’s effort by clapping with him and telling him “good job”. Many a time, the benevolent parents treat him to his favorite rhyme or take him for a ride :). It is also laying the foundation around positive reinforcement. In parenting, this is encouraged as one of the best practices. As an aunt, I was super happy to see the happiness on my nephew’s face and also lead me to some reflection about the importance of such a practice.
Positive reinforcement is a well known practice in behaviourial psychology and is a part of the Skinner model of operant conditioning. The theory works well with children, pets and adults. It helps inculcate a set of desired behaviour patterns. It is linked to employee motivation at workplaces. In my opinion, this is a great practice for self motivation too.
How can you make it work at the workplace without overdoing it? I have seen more negative reinforcements than positive in the modern day large corporations. In my view, there has to be a healthy balance of both forms of reinforcement in workplaces. It depends on the industry as well. Studies suggest that positive reinforcement play an important role in employee motivation. There is lot of literature on positive reinforcement so I will not get into the details of the different types of reinforcers. There are primarily 4 main categories which are natural, token , social and tangible reinforcers. As per me, there are 4 things which are key when using this practice.
- Be Genuine — Yes, this matters. We as humans can see through each other. In service industry workplaces when we are dealing with people, this can really help inculcte the right behaviours in teams. Do the reinforcement with genuine intention. (Tip- If you manage large teams, then ensure that you and your directs work together to propagate this behaviour. As leaders, it is important to encourage a positive culture even if you are not able to participate each time. )
- Time is the essence — Would I have seen the same happiness if I had clapped after 10 minutes and would my nephew show the same enthusiasm on receiving the applause. Time is key and it is important to ensure that you act in a timely manner. (Tip- Don’t tie this to your company’s reward and recognition program and wait for the distribution ceremony to applaud someone. The tangible reinforcement can be done during the ceremonies but make sure that you recognise and encourage at the right time)
- Be Specific — When you are praising someone for his/her work, be specific about how the achievement. ( Tip — Who, What, How and When — To call out the acheivement rather than just making general statements)
- Celebrate Small Milestones — This is very important and it also helps set right behaviours in the teams. You could have your own system to celebrate these milestones. ( Tip — A shout out, a crown , a cap ,a coffee, a happy dance — Make it about them and not the process/structure of the companies :))
All the above can be applied to our own lives. Positive reinforcement is not about praising but it is about encouraging repeated behaviour and create new patterns of desired behaviour. Don’t forget to joyfully enjoy that minute of positive reinforcement like the little kid :)