Leadership Barometer 59 Reinforcement Done Well

July 21, 2020

The most effective way to get people to perform in a certain way is to reward performance that is in the direction you wish to go.

Two other important concepts are to establish an environment of trust up front, and gently shape impending wrong behavior toward some activity that can be positively reinforced. These concepts are documented Ken Blanchard’s book, Whale Done, published in 2002.

When people are properly reinforced, they develop habits of doing the right things because it makes them feel good. The reinforcement becomes intrinsic. People are doing their best at all times, not just when the boss has a chance to witness it.

Of all the tools at a leader’s command, positive reinforcement is by far the most powerful. Yet reinforcement can be a minefield of potential problems, and many leaders, after getting burnt, become reluctant to use it.

By avoiding reinforcement, they ignore the most powerful correcting force available to them.

A good analogy is when a military pilot flies a fighter jet. The way to get a fighter jet to do what you want is to carefully control the stick at all times.

Reinforcement at work is like the stick of a fighter jet. If we are not skillful at using it, the results can be destabilizing or even disastrous, but that’s no reason to let go of the stick.

We simply need to train everyone to use reinforcement often, learn from any mistakes along the way, and use reinforcement to enhance intrinsic motivation.

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.

1. 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.

2. 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 or her credibility.

When reinforcing others, don’t say something because it sounds good, say it because it feels true.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Fairness 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 the issue of perceived unfair reinforcement?

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.

You can never overdo sincere reinforcement in an organization. The best reinforcement approach is to make it ubiquitous and continuous.

The word ubiquitous comes from the Latin root, ubiqe, which means everywhere. It was originally a theological expression used to describe the omnipresence of Christ. In this context, it means that reinforcement should exist everywhere in an organization and be encountered constantly.

Developing a Reinforcing Culture

Thus far, we have discussed personal reinforcements for a job well done. This is important, but it pales compared with the power of developing a reinforcing culture at all levels.

That culture is a social norm that encourages everyone to honestly appreciate each other and say so as often as possible.

Many groups struggle in a kind of hell where people hate and try to undermine one another at every turn. They snipe at each other and “blow people in,” just to see them suffer or to get even for some perceived sin done to them.

What an awful environment to live and work in, yet it is far too common.

Contrast this with a group where individuals build each other up and delight in each other’s successes. These groups have much more fun. They enjoy interfacing with their comrades at work.

They are also about twice as productive! You see them together outside work for social events, and there are close family-type relationships in evidence.

As a leader, you want to develop this second kind of atmosphere, but how? A good place to start is with yourself. Make sure you are practicing positive reinforcement in a way that others see and recognize.

Create an atmosphere where everyone understands and places high value on effective reinforcement. Become a model of reinforcement, and praise those in your organization who excel at it.

One helpful technique is to have the leader encourage reinforcing notes within the organization and ask to receive a copy of each note. By reviewing the notes and publicly giving praise to both the sender and receivers, the method will quickly spread and perpetuate itself.

The speed and ease of e-mail facilitates these notes of praise.

At the same time, leaders need to encourage verbal reinforcement that is not documented. Any time someone sees another person doing something right, she should be encouraged to offer praise.

Especially important are the “thank yous” any time a person goes out of his or her way to help someone. The key is to create the culture at all levels. It isn’t enough for just the boss or a few supervisors to reinforce people. Teach everyone to do it. That multiplies the impact by however many people you have.

As the culture develops, you’ll see it spreading to other parts of the organization. People will begin to notice your area is much more positive and productive than before. It will sparkle, and upper management will start asking how you did it.

A reinforcing culture transforms an organization from a “what’s wrong” mindset to one of “what’s right.” The positive energy benefits everyone as the quality of work life is significantly enhanced.

In addition, the quality and quantity of work increases dramatically because you have harnessed energy previously lost in bickering and put it into positive work toward the vision. What an uplifting way to increase productivity!

Instead of beating on people and constantly dwelling on the negative, you’ll be generating good feelings and loyalty while you drive productivity to new heights. That is worth doing and easy to accomplish!

Don’t get discouraged if you make a mistake in reinforcing. Sometimes you will. It is an area of significant peril, but its power is immense.

Continually monitor your success level with reinforcement. Talk about it openly, and work to improve the culture. Consider every mistake a learning event for everyone, especially yourself. Often these are comical in nature – like throwing another pizza party when everyone is sick of pizza.

Let your reinforcement be joyous and spontaneous. Let people help you make it special. Reinforcement is the most powerful elixir available to a leader. Don’t shy away from it because it’s difficult or you’ve made mistakes in the past.


The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Bob is also the author of Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.




Leadership Barometer 53 I’m OK – You’re Not OK

June 3, 2020

I have made an observation after listening to people vent about problem individuals at work or at home.

It seems most people have a rather long list of things that other individuals must do to improve but a rather short list of things they need to change in their own behavior.

It is human nature to excuse or rationalize one’s own shortcomings while focusing on the obvious improvement needs of others. Since nearly everyone practices this little deception, the world must be rife with almost perfect people who wish the other people around them would shape up.

Hmmm – something is wrong with this picture? Here are a dozen tips that can change the pattern for you. Print them out and post them at work. Feel free to add more concepts of your own, and let me know what you add.

1. Reverse the Roles

The other day a student was venting about a particular individual who was a major challenge at work. The student described in gory detail several behavioral things the other person constantly did that drove him up the wall.

I asked him to write an analysis about himself from the perspective of that other person. In other words, what would the other person tell me about him if he had the chance.

That brought the student up short, and he admitted it would be a rather humbling exercise to do.

2. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

It is a well known fact that most married couples fight over the little things that become habitual annoyances on a daily basis. The position of the toilet seat is a great example. How come I can never get my wife to leave the toilet seat up?

It is not the 401K account that most couples argue about daily, it is who gets the remote control, or why the toothpaste tube is always topless. So, if we can just remember that the small stuff is really just that, then maybe we can relax a bit.

3. Live and let Live

If a cubicle mate hums when she is happy, it is no reason to have a coronary over it. This is her outlet and way to be cheerful.

Even though it curdles your skin when it goes on and on, why burst her balloon by pointing out her “problem”? If it is an unconscious habit, she will never be able to control it anyway.

Simply buy a pair of noise canceling head phones and play the kind of music you like. Let a happy person be happy or a miserable person be miserable. Focus your energy on creating your own sphere of cheerfulness rather than trying to change the rest of the world.

4. Punch Out Early, Don’t Punch Out the Person

Find some way to get away from the petty squabbles before they bring you to the snapping point. If you cannot actually leave without penalty, it does not stop you from mentally checking out. Just go for a little vacation in your mind.

Imagine smelling the giant pines if you love to hike. Feel the frost on your cheeks if you like to ski. Taste the chocolate chip cookie if you like to eat, or how about a relaxing hot tub while sitting at your desk?

Imagining happier places has kept many POWs alive for years; the same technique can keep you sane until 5 o’clock.

5. Share a treat

Just because someone drives you nuts by clipping his nails in the morning is no reason to hate him all day long. Find some symbolic olive branch and waive it around. Go get two chocolate bars and give him one.

Bring him in a bag of his favorite flavor of coffee. By extending kindness, we get kindness in return. Usually people know what they do drives us crazy.

If we change our body language rather than keep festering about “their problem” and learn to accentuate the positive, then the other person will likely respond in kind.

6. Extend Trust

The reciprocal nature of trust implies that you can improve another person’s trust in you by extending more trust to him or her.

When we build up a higher account balance of trust, the petty issues seem to melt away because we are focused on what is good about the other person rather than idiosyncrasies that drive us bonkers.

The best way to increase trust is to reinforce people who are candid with us about our own shortcomings. That takes emotional intelligence to do, but it works wonders at improving relationships.

7. Don’t Complain About Others Behind their Back

Speak well of other people as much as possible. The old adage “if you cannot say something nice about someone don’t say anything” is really good advice.

When we gripe about others when they are not present, a little of the venom always leaks out to the other person, either directly or indirectly. Never make a joke about another person at his or her expense.

A wise old pastor taught me that rule 40 years ago, and it is a great rule. If a person is doing something that really bothers you, simply tell him or her in as kind a way as possible why you find the action irritating.

8. Stop Acting Like Children

The lengths people go to in order to strike back at others for annoying them often takes on the air of a food fight in grade school.

Escalating e-mail notes is a great example of this phenomenon. I call them e-grenade battles. It is easy to avoid these squabbles if we simply do not take the bait.

When you find yourself going back and forth with another person more than three times, it is time to change the mode of communication. Pick up the phone or walk down the hall for a chat.

9. Care About the Other Person

If we really do care enough to not get bent out of shape over little things, then we can tolerate inconveniences a lot better. What we get back from others is really a reflection of the vibes we put out ourselves.

If we are feeling prickly and negative reactions from others, we need to check our attitude toward them. While it is convenient to blame them, often we are at least a partial cause of the negativity: they are simply a mirror.

10. Picture the other person as the most important person in your life

If all else fails, try to remember that life is short and to expend energy bickering and griping about others really wastes your most precious resource – your time.

How much better it is to go through life laughing and loving than griping and hating. We do have a choice when it comes to the attitude we show other people. Make sure your choice enriches others as well as yourself.

11. Have your own personal development plan

Start out each day with a few minutes of meditation on how you want to present yourself better to your co-workers. Have a list of areas you are trying to improve on.

This healthy mindset crowds out some of the rotten attitudes that can lead you to undermine the actions of others all day. Create a list of your personal improvement areas, and work on them daily.

12. Follow the Golden Rule

Finally, the famous Golden Rule is the most positive way to prevent petty issues from becoming relationship destroyers.

By simply taking the time to figure out how you would like to be treated if the roles were reversed, you will usually make the right choice for building and preserving great relationships.

Following these 12 tips will create a happier you and will mean that your interpersonal relationships will be much stronger in the future.



The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.