It is sad that many attempts at positive reinforcement actually lower motivation. You have probably experienced this yourself, either on the sending or receiving end, and it can be very frustrating. There are four reasons why positive reinforcement can have a negative impact.
- Overdone Tangible Reinforcement – The over use of trinkets, buttons, T-shirts, or stickers to reinforce every positive action gets old quickly. When using tangible rewards, keep the volume and variety to a reasonable level to maintain their impact. Check to see if people are rolling their eyes when given a trinket.
- Insincere Reinforcing – Insincerity is transparent. When a manager says nice things about you that do not come from the heart, you know it instantly. It reduces his credibility. When reinforcing others, don’t say something because it sounds good, say it because it feels true.
- Not Perceived as Reinforcing – What people find reinforcing is a matter of individual taste. When leaders reinforce using their own frame of reference rather than that of the recipient, it often ends in frustration. Find out what would really reinforce the other person by asking. Don’t give a doughnut to a person on a strict diet. That sounds obvious, but that kind of mistake happens all the time.
- Reinforcement Perceived as Unfair – Of all the reasons for not reinforcing well, the issue of fairness spreads out like a nuclear cloud after a bomb blast. Leaders get burnt on this issue once, and it colors reinforcing patterns from then on. If they reinforce Sally publicly, it makes her feel good, but tends to turn off Joe and Mark, who believe they did more than she did. That is why the “employee of the month” concept often backfires. It sets up a kind of implied competition where one person is singled out for attention. That person is perceived to “win” at the expense of others who think they “lose.” How do you fight this?
Create a win-win atmosphere rather than win-lose. Focus more on group performance, where the whole group is reinforced with special mention to some key players. Have the employees themselves nominate people singled out for attention. Group nomination feels better than having the boss “play God,” trying to figure out who made the biggest contribution. It is a tricky area.
For those of you who would like more information on how to achieve a more reinforcing culture, here is a white paper entitled Ubiquitous Reinforcement.