The Importance of Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace

In order to keep your employees engaged, you must give them positive reinforcement. To find out more about how leaders can go about doing that effectively, I spoke with Bill Sims. Sims is the author of Green Beans & Ice Cream: The Remarkable Power of Positive Reinforcement.” He’s the President of Bill Sims Behavior Change and has been helping companies improve human performance and profitability through positive reinforcement for thirty years. In the following brief interview, he talks about the best ways to motivate your employees, how positive reinforcement really works, why performance reviews aren’t valuable and more.

Dan Schawbel: What is the best way to motivate your employees and why? 

Bill Sims: Conventional wisdom has always held that cash is king when it comes to employee motivation. Companies spend trillions of dollars annually doling out bonuses and performance incentives. In addition to this you can add the “soft stuff” which runs the gamut from t-shirts, Thanksgiving turkeys, and a gold watch every 5 years of service. Quite often these approaches fail miserably. A 2007 study by the Incentive Federation, for instance, found that while gifts with a logo are one of the most commonly used employee “motivators” they are also the least effective. Why is it that the least effective motivators are the ones used most often?

In his book “1001 Ways to Recognize Employees”, Bob Nelson demonstrates that the top two drivers of employee performance are:  “I am able to make a difference at work” and “I have been recognized recently for what I do.” Money ranks a distant fifth place.  Steve Jobs said, “I want to put a ding in the universe.”  In my book, he did, and that had to be a huge source of positive reinforcement for him and his followers.

But sadly, over 68% of the workers that Nelson interviewed had never received even a simple “Thank You” from their boss in the previous six months—today, that number is creeping closer to 80%. When it comes to positive reinforcement folks, we’re not getting better, we’re getting worse. In further research, Nelson found that while employees rank positive feedback from their boss as the best motivator, their supervisors didn’t believe that positive reinforcement mattered. During one of my leadership workshops, one supervisor joked…“Positive reinforcement? Yeah, we give them that every Friday, Bill…it’s called a paycheck.”

All jokes aside, what does work, and what will always work is sincere, specific positive feedback and reinforcement.  Most people think  positive reinforcement consists of  gifts, bonuses, or a pay raises—and cash bonuses and incentive pay can play a large role in driving performance improvement, they are merely one form of positive reinforcement. You see, quite often, the best kinds of positive reinforcement are free. In my book, I discuss the Neuron Study, done in Japan.  It scientifically proves why and how positive verbal praise and feedback stimulate the same neural pathways that cash stimulates.

With one huge difference. It doesn’t cost you one penny to tell your kids, spouse, employees and co-workers that they did something right. So why don’t we do it more often? The irony is, that the thing workers say they need the most, is the thing they receive the least—genuine positive reinforcement and feedback. The leaders who will excel in this decade are those who learn to leverage positive reinforcement as a strategic “game changer” for their business.

Schawbel: How does positive reinforcement drive profitability and employee engagement?

Sims: Numerous studies by Harvard Business Review, and the Forum for People Performance and Management have shown that high levels of employee engagement & retention drive increases in Safe/Quality production which enhances customer satisfaction and retention, and thus profits. That’s old news. But what’s really interesting is that the key driver of employee engagement and retention is the presence of positive reinforcement in the workplace.

So, at the end of the day, if you increase the positive reinforcement in your system, and eliminate the barriers to “getting things done” you will enhance your profitability. That’s easy to say, and often tough to do. And it’s one of the areas my book brings clarity to.

Schawbel: Why are performance evaluations a total waste of time and money?

Sims: Recently Microsoft put an end to “forced rankings.” This was patterned after Jack Welch’s approach at GE. Essentially, his  method of performance review stated that you had to identify who your “loser employees” were so you could fire them. Microsoft was one of many companies to drink that Kool Aid. Regrettably, it failed. And it probably did more damage to the collaborative structure of GE, Microsoft, and the others who tried it than just about anything else.

When you know that you have to compete against all your co-workers to be graded as the “best” or to avoid being labeled as “a loser” why would you ever want to help them solve a problem? My book talks a lot about the problems with this approach and also the ubiquitous “Employee of the Month” programs, which again, do more harm than good. I’ve got two daughters, Daphne and Carli. What will happen if I walk in one day and say, “Hey Carli, Daphne’s Daughter of the Month and you’re not?”  How’s that going to go over? Not too good. I think we can learn another lesson from my Mom here. At the ripe old age of four you see, she and I had a big labor/management disagreement. I wasn’t eating my Green Beans.

Then one day, in a stroke of maternal genius she said, “Son, if you eat your Green Beans, you can have some…. (you guess it… ICE CREAM!) It worked! I’m  eating Green Beans to this day. What did mom do? First, she clearly pinpointed and communicated the behavior she needed from me, and then BAM! When my behavior change occurred that first time I got a kiss, a hug, and a BIG BOWL of Ice cream. And I got all those reinforcers IMMEDIATELY. I didn’t have to wait till the end of the year to see if I would get 1, 2 or 3 licks of Ice Cream in my annual Kid Performance Review! From behavioral science, we know that behavior needs to be reinforced instantly, within 10 seconds or less. That’s exactly what Mom did.

Performance evaluations are commonly a failure because:

  • They are subjective, not objective
  • They are designed to create a few winners, and they create many “losers”
  • They are not done often enough.

Schawbel: How do you recommend managers increase engagement with their teams?

Sims: Employee engagement has gotten lots of attention due to the work of Gallup and Towers Perrin, and we are all deeply indebted to them for this. Still, I think there’s a level of performance beyond engagement, and I’ve put out a short video explaining this at greenbeanleadership.com. That ultimate level of performance is Employee commitment. And yet, less than 10% of our employees are truly committed to the job. Why? Because the management method most bosses use is classic “Leave Alone/Zap!”

Ken Blanchard coined this term back in the eighties. It’s the default method of management–in fact, it’s the only method most people have ever seen in use. Simply put, it means that we leave people alone and say nothing when they do something right (giving no positive feedback), but we are quick to ZAP!  (punish and negatively reinforce them) when they make a mistake.

A CPA from Colorado agreed with me…”The bosses at my company don’t say anything about the 98% of your job you do flawlessly. All they want to talk about is the 2% where you make a mistake.” The problem with Leave Alone/ZAP Management is that it doesn’t get you to the highest level of performance (commitment). It only gets you a temporary change in behavior which lasts about 60 seconds after you and your big stick leave the room. If “Leave Alone/Zap” produced commitment, then the Death Penalty would have eradicated murder many years ago. Because there isn’t any bigger zap than the electric chair.

If you want commitment, if you want people doing the “right thing” in the Moment of Choice when you’re not there,  then you need a better management system. I call that PR+ Leadership, and my video at Greenbeanleadership.com explains more about it.

Schawbel: What do you do as a manager if an employee is performing poorly?

Sims: I like the Deming Test. Dr. W. Edwards Deming had a famous “Gun to the Head” test to help uncover the root cause of an employee who performs poorly. In his imaginary test, you point a gun at the employee’s head and begin to squeeze the trigger. At this point, if he still cannot do the job properly, then the problem is training & tools, and it is your job to correct the deficiency of your management system. On the other hand, once the gun is aimed at him, if he can do the job properly, the problem is motivation.

Of course, you can’t use  a literal gun to the head test nowadays. But you can put Deming’s principles to work. Here’s how… First of all, ask  yourself, “Have we trained them effectively? Have we provided them the tools to do the job? Have we removed the barriers to doing the job safely, delivering production and quality? Quite often, the answer is no, and the failure lies in the management system. To shape the employee’s performance, set a series of small goals, and positively reinforce the improvements immediately. Much of the time, employees are poor performers because they’ve been told that they are.

So often, problem “children” employees get a bad reputation, and they get branded as “losers.” In the PBS documentary, “A Class Divided” a teacher conducted an experiment where the class was divided into two groups, based on eye color. One group was told they were smarter, nicer and neater than the others. The second group was criticized and humiliated and told they were less intelligent. Before long, test scores declined in the “inferior” group, while those in the “superior” group improved.

The lesson we learn is clear. Performance evaluation systems that create “winners” and “losers” actually de-motivate performance and they destroy commitment. As the late great Coach John Wooden once said, “You don’t coach someone to the limit of their ability. You coach them to the limit of yours.” Well said, Coach.

30 Ways to Say, “Great Job!”













Dan Schawbel

Dan Schawbel is the managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and management consulting firm. His new book, a New York Times best seller, is called Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success (St. Martin's Press) and his previous book, Me 2.0, was a #1 international bestseller.

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