Positive reinforcement for better work


Turn change into opportunity

In 2017, Aeon and Aguinis found that organizational routines are formed following a systemic shock. In today’s situation, this means that the changes we are experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic are an opportunity to change our routines. 

In addition to this, Barker 1993, found that teams quickly work out rules that eventually become engrained into structures. So if there was something not quite working with your team before the outbreak, now could be the perfect time to make a positive change.  

Getting people to do what you want can be difficult, and advice from management experts is often confusing or even conflicting. So one way to go about it, one that has scientific support of its effectiveness, is to use positive reinforcement. Described in Karen Pryor’s fabulous “Don’t Shoot the Dog” (if you haven’t read it, do!) positive reinforcement stands out as a solution that is underutilized at work, yet highly effective.

We thought we would take a closer look at what positive reinforcement really means…

Hey, why not just punish everyone? 

Punishment is natural to us, and an easy solution to carry out. As most societies weave punishment into culture, we all have ample experience in both punishing, and being punished, from an early age so it seems strange to use anything else. 

While there can be no denying that punishment can be useful on occasion, the key here is that for getting people to do what you want over an extended period, punishment is the most ineffective reinforcement strategy.

On the other hand, positive reinforcement works far more effectively but is a lot more challenging to implement. It requires quite specific knowledge of what you want the person to do, and genuinely useful positive reinforcement requires some advanced planning. 

Types of reinforcement:

Image is from wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning

Here is how to do it: 

  • Identify a target behavior
  • Recognize what people find reinforcing (understand that people are motivated by different things, as well as achieving their best)
  • Reinforce (this is particularly important in the beginning, and can become more sporadic once the behavior becomes routine) 

If humans reacted to feedback like dogs, then this whole would be much simpler, however for humans, for it to be effective, it needs to be: (Iglen et al. 1979)

  • Timely
  • Credible
  • Meaningful to the individual
  • Understood to align with the person’s goals (not conflict)


  • Be aware of unintentionally punishing (e.g. some people find being called out for good performance embarrassing and would not appreciate it in public) 

A reinforcement exercise: 

A study by Positive Psychology found over 90 ways to practice positive reinforcement, and below is an exercise to practice to help you to start using positive reinforcement:

  • Choose a behavior to reinforce

It is important to be as specific as possible:

Not specific enough: I want Jack to be less horrible in meetings

Better: I want Jack to stop talking over people in meetings

  • Choose the right reinforcement

Many things can act as an encouragement to employees, so knowing the person you are trying to reinforce is crucial. For example:

“Sugar makes me sluggish, so giving me chocolate for a job well done would not be an effective reinforcer for me.”

If you are just getting started with positive reinforcement, try starting with something easy to implement, like verbal approval.

  • Reinforce

The difficulty with positive reinforcement is in needing to wait to see improvements and effectiveness.

  • Observe the outcome

When you implement positive reinforcement, it is important to observe the outcome and results carefully.

  • Describe your feelings afterward

During the observations, it is important that you and your employees discuss your feelings and emotions over the process.

  • Evaluate

For any positive reinforcement you undertake, it is also vital that you evaluate its effectiveness and whether it needs to be modified to improve results further.

You probably do not need to practice the traditional ways of punishing people for improving that method’s effectiveness, so if you would like to practice positive reinforcement here at Work’s the Matter, we can help. Our unique and powerful module on positive reinforcement training will let you try this out with your team and discover the benefits.


Aeon B and Aguinis H (2017) It’s about time: New perspectives and insights on time management. European Journal of Psychology of Education 12(1): 381–399. DOI: 10.1007/s11409-017-9174-1.

Ilgen DR, Fisher CD and Taylor MS (1979) Consequences of individual feedback on behavior in organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology 64(4): 349–371. DOI: 10.1037/0021-9010.64.4.349.


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