There is little doubt that positive reinforcement is the most potent of all interpersonal tools available to anyone in a leadership position. Unfortunately, it is a tool that is the most misunderstood and most misused in the workplace. Infrequent use of this tool can defeat the intention and be perceived as negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement that takes place too long after the event is also regarded as negative reinforcement.

This means that it must be timely and it must be regular when deserved. People in leadership positions should know most about positive reinforcement because this is the only way that all aspects of their followers’ performance can be maximized. The more positive reinforcement that is applied, the more that behavior will be repeated. For example, it has been suggested that acts of terrorism are the consequences of positive reinforcement. Because journalists are quick to report the group that have taken responsibility for an act of terror and publish their names and photographs all over the news, they are inadvertently, reinforcing that behavior.

Some leaders have found that by making immediate and visible responses to complaints from their staff, the number of complaints has risen dramatically. This is a difficult situation to deal with because the complaints cannot be ignored and must be acted on. By the same token, it has to be clearly seen that positive reinforcement has the potential to create a constant stream of complaints which will lead to continual dissatisfaction. One of the ways of handling this situation is to create a “fix it” list. On this list, things to be fixed are prioritized. As soon as one item is fixed, another one can be added.

Another area where positive reinforcement can cause a problem is the fact that what is positively reinforcing to one person will not necessarily work with another. This means that trying to positively reinforce across an organization is fraught with danger and is unlikely to be successful because of the number of people who will be unhappy with it. Successful relationships will only develop when you know what each person wants and you, as the leader, can help that person to be successful. Over the years, many organizations have attempted to make positive changes that affect everybody without considering them as individuals.

The message for the leader is this, “People want to be recognized and reinforced as individuals for their individual effort and results. Anything less will not only have the potential to have a negative effect but also create resentment.”