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.




Body Language 82 Shy

July 7, 2020

Most people will have times in life when they feel shy. It is not a negative thing to exhibit some insecurity in certain situations. We all experience this. The body language of a person who is feeling shy is usually rather easy to decode.

In most cases the person will be trying to avoid being noticed. You may see a child cover her eyes or hide under a coat or blanket.

The gestures associated with being shy are easier to spot in young children than in adults. My guess is that as people mature, they develop ways of disguising insecurity and have coping mechanisms to be able to function successfully in the world.

Let’s examine some other gestures that may be operational here and see if there is a common thread.

The person may hide by stepping behind a door and peeking around the edge. Sometimes you can see a person wearing a hat pull the brim down to hide the face. The idea is to get behind or under something.

Another manifestation of being shy can be the position of the hands. A shy person will sometimes have his hands folded together and sometimes he will be moving them back and forth in front of his body. This is also a contraction movement trying to appear smaller than he actually is.

If the eyes are not covered, most likely the person is looking down and has her chin lowered as in the attached picture.

I found numerous different mouth configurations when looking at photos of shy people. There was not enough of a central theme to constitute a trend. The mouth could be open or shut. It could be symmetrical or pulled to the side. The person could be smiling or frowning, although I saw more examples of a smile than a frown. The mouth area was also frequently covered by the fingers.

What to do

You can help a shy person open up, but it can be a delicate dance, because if you come on too strong, it may be interpreted as a form of put down for the person. The best approach is to let the person know you are sincerely interested in her opinion without talking down to her.

Here is an example of an approach that is too direct. “Alice, you have not said anything in the meeting so far. We want to know what you are thinking.” A softer approach might sound like this. “Let’s hear from some of the other people to broaden our discussion.” When using this approach, avoid looking directly at the person you want to open up.

The person may feel bullied or not treated well by others. Sometimes a leader may exacerbate the situation by letting unkind remarks go unchecked. A hostile environment may be very subtle, and what seems like an innocent remark may be taken the wrong way. The best way to avoid that kind of problem is to have a rule that our team will not make jokes at the expense of other team members.

Avoid commenting on the appearance of a shy person. He wants to remain as hidden from view as possible, so calling attention to him in any way will make things worse for him. The best approach is to get him to share something and honor that with an affirming comment that is not heavy, judgmental, or insincere.

A person who tends to feel shy may do better in a one-on-one situation. You may be able to get the person to feel more confident by spending some time with him. Once you have built a strong rapport with the person, then he will be more inclined to open up when you are both with other people.

A person who is shy may also be highly sensitive. The two concepts are different but are often found in one person. A sensitive person can be a real asset, because he or she can often pick up subtle clues and give insights into how the rest of the group, or a specific person, is reacting to something.

Times of insecurity happen to all of us, and for different reasons. Learn to live through these moments and contribute your ideas as soon as possible.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”



Leadership Barometer 16 Reinforce Well

September 17, 2019

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership. There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. If you know how to reinforce people well, you are going to score well on any leadership assessment.

Build a Reinforcing Culture

Leaders who are good at reinforcing others well end up gaining substantial leverage. Simply put, people tend to perform better if they feel appreciated. Since the days of Pavlov, we know that conditioning leads to improved actions, so this is no surprise. Unfortunately many leaders do not know or appreciate that reinforcement is a minefield. There are numerous ways to reinforce poorly. I have outlined these in my books and in other articles. Four categories of poor reinforcement are:

• Reinforcing with trivial trinkets to extreme
• Not being sincere with reinforcement
• Having timing and method not feel reinforcing to the receiver
• Applying reinforcement that is perceived biased and inequitable

For this article I want to focus on the culture rather than just the reinforcement habits of the leader. It is one thing to avoid the pitfalls above as a single person. That action will have leverage, but it will not change the whole organization nearly as much as if the leader encourages everyone in the organization to become good at reinforcing. What are some tips to allow this to happen?

Model good reinforcement yourself – always take the opportunity to make people feel good when they do good things. Do not rely on trivial gifts like t-shits and pencils. Use a variety of techniques and use simple verbal or written praise for most of this work.

Talk about the technology and the pitfalls – discuss successes and failures openly. If an attempt at reinforcement backfires, hold a meeting to debrief what went wrong, how it can be corrected, and how it can be prevented in the future.

Reinforce people when they reinforce others – I know that reads like double talk or circular logic. The idea is that the leader needs to enhance the good feelings that people in the organization get when they take the time to say or write “thank you” to other people in the group. I would always get back to someone who wrote a thank you note to a co-worker thanking her for the help or whatever. The essence of my note was to make the originator feel great about taking the time to recognize the good deeds of another person.

Reinforcement by a peer is one of the most powerful ways to encourage people to do more good deeds.  By reinforcing the reinforcer, you encourage that behavior at all levels in the organization simultaneously. It builds trust and creates higher motivation.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.


Trust and Reinforcement

September 5, 2015

AwesomeIn groups with high trust, management attempts to reinforce workers usually work well. People are appreciative that management notices good performance and expends effort to recognize them.

Since reinforcement is one of the best ways to shape future performance, any organization that has high trust between management and the workers has a significant advantage.

In groups with low trust, attempts to reinforce workers are often met with apathy or suspicion, and they frequently backfire. This reaction happens because of the low trust, and workers feel the reinforcement is likely some form of manipulation.

Here is an example of how an attempt to reinforce workers did not work well.

Marvin was the big boss in the organization where I worked. He wanted to reinforce a group of employees who had put in a lot of overtime over several weeks. He asked the manager to buy theater tickets for everyone in the department.

The problem was that he failed to provide a similar reinforcement to another department who worked in the same building and had put in similar crazy hours. So by trying to reinforce one group, Marvin caused significant loss of motivation in the other.

It was an ugly scene, and he tried to smooth things by buying tickets for the second department, but the damage had already been done.

Although reinforcement is a powerful way to improve performance if done well, it can be a minefield if there is not a basis for trust behind it because it feels manipulative.

People ask “what is he up to now,” or say “there must be something more he wants from us,” or “uh oh, he is trying to butter us up to tell us some bad news.”

Often thoughtless leaders try to reinforce workers from their own personal perspective rather than the perspective of the workers themselves.

An example is the supervisor who decided to have an ice cream social to celebrate a production milestone.

He had forgotten that over half of the workers had signed a pledge to lose 20% of their weight in an effort toward better health.

Most of the workers boycotted the social, and the hapless supervisor ended up with the scoop in his hand and a lot of melted ice cream. Worse, his crude attempt to celebrate with the workers made him the laughing stock of the production area.

Here are six ways that well-intended managers blow it when trying to reinforce workers:

1. Reinforcing too much with trinkets like t-shirts or hats, etc.
2. Being insincere when reinforcing
3. Having the reward something the workers really don’t want – like the ice cream story
4. Unfair application of rewards where one person or group is favored over others
5. Recognition not timely to the actions that caused them
6. Automatic or mechanical reinforcement that does not come from the heart

Exercise for you: Think about your own successes and failures when trying to reinforce people. Try to pinpoint the root cause of why any problems occurred.

Think about what could have been done differently to prevent the resulting loss of motivation. With effort, you can usually spot the error in logic and the cure. This gives you a chance to apologize and not make the same type of mistake in the future.

Reinforcement is a powerful method of improving performance, but only if it is done with skill. Having high trust is a great enabler of effective reinforcement. It helps managers avoid the many pitfalls that can happen.

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to http://www.avanoo.com/first3/517