Kevin Ian Schmidt

How Effective Leaders Use Positive Reinforcement For the Greatest Effect

There has been a lot of research over the years to try and discover why some leaders are more effective than others. Unfortunately, the major part has been based on what leaders say they do rather than actually what they do.. One researcher who has devoted their time to what leaders actually do, is Dr. J Komaki.

What she discovered is that effective leaders and managers didn’t give positive reinforcement more frequently than the ineffective leaders and managers. But their timing was different. Whenever possible, the effective managers and leaders gave positive reinforcement while the people were doing the job. This meant that they spent a considerable amount of time in the workplace. In contrast, the ineffective leaders spent most of their time in their offices.

When you give reinforcement when the behavior is being performed, you know exactly what you are reinforcing. Further more, the person receiving the reinforcement is in no doubt of which behavior is being reinforced. Most ineffective leaders don’t realize that reinforcement has got the definite shelf life. The longer the gap between the behavior and the reinforcement the less effective it is.

The effective leader also goes further. He or she knows that one of the greatest advantages of teamwork is that team members can provide an immediate reinforcement for each other. Leaders like this train their team members to give positive reinforcement at every opportunity. After all, the team members are in the best position to judge which behaviors deserve reinforcement.

Generally speaking, the amount of reinforcement that is given an organizations is tiny. Managers and leaders complain that often they give reinforcement but the behavior doesn’t change. Although most managers and leaders understand what reinforcement is and how it works, they are not aware of a frequent it has to develop high performing teams and effective organizations. To give an example, the median number of reinforcers given in the classroom is about six an hour.

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When you think about the last time you tried to train somebody in a workplace task, just reflect on the number of positive reinforcers you actually used. Without over doing it, this can be a very effective addition to your leadership style and it can also make you more effective in the training and coaching role of a leader. When there are too few incidents of positive reinforcement research shows that it becomes a negative reinforcement. The best example of this can be seen in the effect of annual performance appraisals. Because the frequency is so low, there is no way that they can have any impact on organizational performance or individual behavior.


How Effective Leaders Discover What Each Person Needs For Positive Reinforcement

As a leader, you need to be able to identify the specific reinforcers that apply to your individual team members. Each of your followers will respond best to an individual mixture of reinforcers. In this respect, no two people are the same. To keep track of the reinforcers that apply to each person, it’s a good move to keep either notebook or a page on your computer so that you can remember and add more information. It is also wise to sit down with that person and check to make sure that the information that you have written down about the things that reinforce them are current and not being superseded by something else.

Because we are all different, it takes a little bit of time to collect the mixture of reinforcers that apply to each individual. As a leader, your positive reinforcement will be much more effective if it is directed to the very things that mean most to your followers. But you need to find out from them how to motivate them to apply their discretionary effort. Think about yourself and consider the things that you regard as positive reinforcement that will motivate you to use your own discretionary effort. Make a note and also think about what it would be like if these reinforcers were applied on a regular basis.

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The technique for discovering these reinforcers is basically one of listening and encouragement. For example, the discussion may follow these lines after the small talk has been dispensed with.

You “Tell me Jack what are the things in this job they give you a buzz? What do you get a kick out of?”

Jack “Well, it’s always good to finish a job knowing that it’s the best I can do.”

You “Tell me more”

Jack “When I’ve been working on something for a week or so, it’s good to see the back of the job and I get a great feeling of satisfaction when it passes all the inspections and goes out of the door. I know that I couldn’t have done it any better so gives me a good feeling.”

You “Is there anything else that gives you the same feeling of satisfaction?”

Jack “Not really the same but I do get a kick out of thinking about the jobs and working out ways of making it better or simpler or quicker. I don’t always mention things like this but it does make me feel good.”

From this very short discussion, you can see that there’s a couple of areas there that would be worthwhile noting down as reinforcers. Firstly, the satisfaction that Jack gets from the completion of the job and secondly, the satisfaction from working out better ways of doing the job. It would be very simple for the leader to go up to Jack at any time to discover and discuss what he had done to make his job easier.

Note that the person asking the questions spent most of the time listening, probably in the region of 90%. The questioner was using the technique of minimal responses which is a way of encouraging the speaker to continue to talk. The other techniques which can be used quite easily are, being comfortable with the silence and not rushing to fill the gap. Making good on contact with the out delivering an un-wavering stare. Using paraphrasing to confirm understanding. All these methods will make the job of discovering what to reinforce for each team member, relatively simple.

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Five Factors All Leaders Should Know About Positive Reinforcement

When you are in a leadership position the most powerful interpersonal tool available to you, is positive reinforcement. Regrettably, the whole concept of positive reinforcement has not received the attention it deserves from all the written literature that is published every year on leadership.

People in leadership positions are constantly reminded of the importance of profitability, reduction of waste, customer service and increase productivity. The link between positive reinforcement and profitability has never been emphasized strongly enough. The result is that many people in leadership positions are failing to use the most important resource at their fingertips to increase the bottom line.

The five factors are:

  1. Positive reinforcement should be tailor-made to the individual rather than applied as a blanket approach which creates unhappy people. There is no “one size fits all” approach that works because leaders are dealing with so many different people.
  2. As a tool, it should be applied only when it has been earned. There is no point providing benefits across the workforce if only some of them deserve it. Those that don’t deserve it will gradually reduce the effort that they put into their work because they are being reinforced for low performance. One of the worst things the business do is to give a percentage by increases regardless of performance. This means that poor performance is rewarded and it also fails to reinforce the top performers because they feel that a universal pay rise does not recognize their efforts.
  3. The application of positive reinforcement is not an event, it is a process. People will work at their very best, but they require positive, relevant reinforcement daily. To achieve maximum results it must be built into the work relationships and the work processes by the leader.
  4. The timing is critical. The closer you can make the reinforcement to the behavior that you are reinforcing, the more likely the behavior is to be repeated. The bigger the time gap, the less chance of this happening. The three conditions under which it works best are, it must be positive, it must be immediate and it must be certain.
  5. Without doubt, personal relationships produce the best reinforcement. This means that leadership behavior is the key to influencing the performance of followers. Every time there is an interaction between the leader and a follower, the link between their work and the overall objective can be of emphasized so they feel they are contributing to a greater goal. This gives them a sense of belonging and a sense of ownership of what they’re doing.

This is an extremely low-cost strategy but the return on the investment is very high and everybody who holds a leadership position should be aware of the power of positive reinforcement.

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