I thought to weigh in here with a few thoughts on reinforcement and performance. I am going to keep things really simple and straightforward and try to address a few misconceptions.

As background, a doctorate in behavioral neuropsychology and many years of working on animal behavior and rewards, plus 10 years of doing “behavioral consulting for organizational performance kinds of things,” both external and internal with small and big organizations. Add to that about 40 years of reflecting on organizational cultures and performance.

I view the issue in a very simple way: square wheels lego by scott simmerman

Simple Thoughts:

  • That which gets rewarded gets repeated.
  • Behavior is modified with things that are perceived as rewarding, be they rewards or simply feedback related to behavior.
  • Immediate rewards are far more effective than delayed rewards.
  • Most performance feedback is delayed and relatively ineffective – see these 3 posts (articlearticlearticle)
  • Contingent rewards are those that can be directly related back to behavior by the performer.
  • Extrinsic rewards are ineffective for most people in the workforce. What is an effective extrinsic reward varies greatly among individuals.
  • Punishment generates a wide variety of unanticipated (but expected) negative behaviors (including sabotage)
  • Like Punishment, extrinsic rewards can generate all kinds of unanticipated and negative behaviors among the body of the workforce, sometimes called Superstitious Behavior.
  • Negative Reinforcement is the removal of a negative stimulus — it is NOT at all the same as Punishment. (You behave and I get off your back is a negative reinforcement situation. You behave and I get on your back is punishment.)
  • The existence of other people in the workplace tends to complicate the simplicity – peer support is very powerful and maybe the most powerful reward system in place in the workplace.

People sometimes perform in the hopes that they will get recognized by the boss. In so many situations, that is superstitious behavior, like blowing on dice before throwing them or saying some kind of “okay baby” kind of verbalization which you link to the behavior.

What we know from 50 years of research is that intrinsic rewards are much more effective than any possible extrinsic ones. People do things mostly for their own reasons and all we can do is impact those things in some modest ways — they behave because of their values and expectations more than rewards, for the most part. We even know that small rewards are much better than large ones if they are extrinsic.

In so many workplaces, things are so bad that some managers think an annual appraisal of performance might be an effective motivator of specific desired behavior on a daily basis.

We also know that such formal appraisals rarely change actual performance; what is effective is the goal setting for the self-attainment of the individual and the issues around clarifying expectations and generating alignment to shared goals.

A post today shared the tweet that recognition should happen with 24 hours of someone accomplishing something. Sure, that is better than none or something a week later, but even 24 hours is not very good. Imagine learning to play the piano if you could not hear the notes for even 2 minutes!

Yes, something is better than nothing, but delayed reinforcement is hardly effective in any real sense, at least to reward some specific behavioral result.

What can happen is that people imagine that they will get some management or peer recognition, and that predicted result can be modestly rewarding. When that does NOT occur, though, expectations are reduced and the next occurrence will have less effect.

Far better than an extrinsic reward system is a solidly designed and implemented performance feedback system. Take a look at the simple feedback analysis that should generate some ideas about possible changes in performance management in the workplace. Changing the actual feedback in an effective way is a wonderful motivator for self-improvement and change.

Some Simple Ways to Motivate:

  • Involve and engage them in team-based organizational improvement initiatives or innovation initiatives where they have no fear of failure and get regular positive attention from the management team as well as each other.
  • Allow people to get actively involved and develop a sense of ownership in some aspect of their work that is important to them.
  • Be careful of not telling too much, Few people like to be told what to do – give them some framework and ask them for how to best approach things. Coach more than manage / manipulate. Nobody ever washes a rental car. Do things with them more than to them. People resist when pushed.
  • Clarify their roles and align them to shared goals and visions and help them to have clear expectations as to what is desired and feedback about how well they do on a constant basis.
  • Make them feel as if they are valued contributors to the work effort and have a positive impact on group results. Remember that 50% of the people in any workgroup will be above the group average but that 50% will also be below that average; note that ALL people contribute to results.
  • Look for ways to allow individual growth and skill improvement. People like to improve their competencies and performance. Support personal growth and allow for differences.

None of this is rocket science. Remember that YOU probably got promoted to management because you responded well to extrinsic motivators, which is the most common way organizations structure work environments. But also remember that not everyone likes extrinsic rewards in the same way. Extrinsic rewards are most likely NOT motivating many of those people in the lower half of the workgroup. (See more on extrinsic motivation here and here.)

These are my thoughts on the issues around motivating people and improving workplace performance results. Results differ based on any number of factors, but these are the basics. I hope that you got ONE good idea from going through these learning points.

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

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Scott’s quips and quotes on Poems on The Workplace is here.

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