Reinforcement theory says that the outcomes we experience as a result of our actions and behaviors affect how we behave in the future. When actions result in positive outcomes, we do more of them. When they result in negative outcomes, we do less of them.Summary by The World of Work Project
Reinforcement theory says that the way we respond to an individual’s actions and behaviors has the ability to change their behaviors in the future. This process is known as operant conditioning.
When individuals experience positive outcomes as a result of a behavior or action, they are more likely to perform that action in the future. These positive outcomes are known as “reinforcements”.
Similarly, when individuals experience a bad outcome as a result of an action or behavior, they are less likely to perform that action or behave in that way in the future. These negative outcomes are known as “punishments”.
Both reinforcements and punishments can consist of both positive and negative reinforcement. This is a bit too convoluted to explain here in detail. What it essentially means is that you can affect an individuals behavior by either adding or taking away a good thing, or adding or taking away a bad thing.
Reinforcement Theory in the World of Work
Reinforcement theory is perhaps most commonly encountered in relation to parenting, but it is increasingly being discussed in the workplace. When used in a work context, reinforcement theory is seen as a useful tool to help steer individuals towards better behaviors and outcomes. It’s normally considered to complement its close relative, feedback.
Where feedback helps show individuals how they may change their behaviors and actions to achieve better outcomes, reinforcement theory helps them feel the results of their actions. When they experience a negative feeling as a result of an action, they will do less of it. When they experience a positive feeling as the result of another action, they’ll do more of it. In this way, it’s theoretically possible to change behaviors without even ever providing “feedback”.
A simple example of reinforcement theory in the workplace could be that if someone did a particularly good job on a piece of work, that their manager would invite them to present it themselves at a more senior meeting. This would (we hope!) be a positive reinforcement which would lead to more of the good behavior in the future.
An example of a punishment could be that if someone consistently arrived late, that they would not be permitted to attend the monthly team lunch. The theory is that the individual would wish to avoid the punishment in the future so would arrive at work on time.
One thing worth noting in relation to reinforcement theory is that it’s possible to change behaviors with very small punishments and reinforcements. This concept of micro adjustments crosses over slightly with the concept of nudging.
Reinforcement is similar to feedback in many ways. Those of you who have spoken to us will know we have pretty strong views on feedback. We understand that receiving feedback well can be difficult and that feedback can feel like a social threat. We also know that receiving feedback can be triggering, causing our amygdala responses (fight or flight) to kick in. Given this, we think it’s good to focus on learning to receive feedback well before focusing on giving feedback well.
There are several posts in this site on various feedback tools and models which might be helpful. These include 360 degree feedback, the stop, start continue framework, The COIN model and the CEDAR model. There are also some tools we think you should avoid, including the feedback sandwich.
Our second podcast on feedback might also be helpful. In it we have a conversation with a feedback specialist, Joe Hirsch. You can listen to it below.
The World of Work Project View
Reinforcement theory works in the world of work. It’s actually something that pretty much all of us use as a tool fairly instinctively and constantly. If you think about it, things like smiles and frowns are a physical embodiment of reinforcement theory in everyday communication.
In our view it’s worth being aware of reinforcement theory and it’s use in the world of work. That said, we think that it’s not something to get too hung up on. It’s an interesting concept and something that can be helpful. But it is also possible to get mired into thinking too much about things like this. There is also the risk of things like abuse of power if leaders start to focus too much of reinforcing or punishing in an effort to change behaviors.
Also, carrots and sticks, yeah? It’s kind of just that with fancier language…
Sources and further reading
Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.
Most of the information used for this post comes from interpretations of and developments of BF Skinner’s work. You can read more in his 1938 book “The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis“.
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