Friday, October 1, 2010

Thank You For Reading This Post!

Few people read my last post on positive reinforcement. I'm not surprised. The evidence would suggest that most people fail to grasp how powerfully the mix of positive and negative interactions influences the workplace. If you're a manager, it could be the most important thing you're not really paying attention to.

In one study, an astounding 65% of employees said they had received no positive reinforcement over the last year. Even if that's a bit of an exaggeration, it indicates a very real perception. In my own experience conducting employee surveys, recognition from management is consistently one of the lowest scores. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the number one reason employees voluntarily leave their job is because the don't feel appreciated.

Okay, so the workplace could be more positive. That doesn't necessarily raise a red flag for the results-oriented firm principal or manager. But it should. Would you like to boost financial performance, increase productivity, improve quality, enhance innovation, or promote greater receptivity to change? Various studies have shown that all of these factors improve--often dramatically--when there are more positive interactions in the workplace than negative ones.

So what's the positive-to-negative reinforcement ratio in your firm? It likely isn't as positive as management thinks it is, based on the research. Studies indicate that positive reinforcement should outweigh the negative by at least 4:1. Gallup found 5:1 to be the optimum balance.

Yet in many firms, negative reinforcement is much more common than positive. One reason for this is that many of management's attempts to provide positive reinforcement are actually perceived negatively by staff. Incentive programs are viewed as too infrequent, uncertain, and subjective. Many employee recognition programs touch too few individuals, and are often perceived as unfairly biased. The negative consequences of not reaching certain goals outweigh the potential rewards of achieving them.

The best way to determine how the positive-to-negative ratio is perceived in your firm or office is simply to ask. Of course, employees need to trust that they can provide honest feedback without negative repercussions. That may involve bringing in someone from the outside.

So let me summarize some valuable tips in thinking about how to increase positive reinforcement in your workplace. I'll include the main points made in my last post as well:

Determine what the perceived ratio is of positive-to-negative interactions in your firm, office, or department. Chances are that employees will struggle to give you a specific answer. You might find it helpful to use Gallup's "Interaction Scorecard" or similar tool to track and characterize interactions over some period of time.

Discover the best ways to provide positive reinforcement. Some suggest a modification of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as they would like you to do for them." Observe what seems to be currently working, or try different approaches, ask employees about their preferences, track the results of your efforts at positive reinforcement. Remember, if you didn't get the desired results, your reinforcement wasn't (reinforcement, that is).

Be sure to make positive reinforcement contingent. Link reinforcement to the specific behavior both before and after. "If you do this, you will receive this." Sounds simple, but you might be surprised how many so-called rewards or incentives are not contingent on clear, specific outcomes. Bonuses, for example, are often awarded for subjective reasons or loosely defined results that employees have a hard time connecting to their actions. Plus these results are often contingent on factors employees have no control over. That does little to reinforce targeted behaviors.

Give special attention to reinforcers that are both immediate and certain. These influence behavior far more strongly than consequences that are future and uncertain. Positive and negative consequences that are immediate and certain reinforce both desired and undesired behaviors. So you should take the time to analyze why your staff does things you don't want them to and determine what interventions are needed to reinforce the behaviors you want. For example, staff may shortcut certain quality control steps because it allows them to save time (a positive, immediate, certain consequence). So what then do you need to do interrupt that sequence and substitute it with reinforcers that promote the actions you want?

Beware of the "yes but" trap. Managers often inadvertently undermine positive reinforcement by mixing it with criticism. "You did a great job on that report, but next time let me suggest you..." There's a place for constructive criticism, but joining it to positive reinforcement is not it. Yes, that goes against the common advice to sandwich criticism between encouragement. But the fact is, people tend to remember the criticisms and downplay the positive reinforcement when both are offered simultaneously.

Avoid overdoing your attempts at positive reinforcement. Like seasoning in food, a lot more of a good thing doesn't necessarily make it better. If you go overboard with positivity (an unlikely prospect in the average A/E firm!), you can neutralize its effect. Too much praise, for example, can come across as lacking authenticity, plus it likely evolves into reinforcing mediocrity. Research suggests that 13 positive interactions to every negative one is about the limit before the beneficial effects are negated. Again, most firms don't have to worry about this, although you might find a few individual managers going over the top.

If all this sounds a bit too "touchy-feely," you're dismissing the tangible business results that are achievable by applying these principles. Positive reinforcement is no longer confined to the domain of the academics and researchers. It has repeatedly delivered substantial improvements in business performance across multiple industries. And putting it into practice is not beyond the practical sensibilities of technical professionals.

Obviously I sought to incorporate a little positive reinforcement myself in choosing the title to this post. Don't know if it worked, but if you've made it this far, hopefully the ideas outlined above are reward enough for your time.

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