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.




Successful Supervisor 71 Building Trust When Your Boss Doesn’t

April 1, 2018

In my work with leaders who are trying to build higher trust within their organizations, the most persistent complaint I run into is a supervisor who says,

“Your material is excellent. I know this can make a huge difference in our organization, but my boss seems intent on doing things that destroy trust almost daily. How can I be more effective at building trust in my arena when the environment we are in is habitually trashed from above?”

This is an interesting conundrum, and yet it is not a hopeless situation. Here are six tips that can help.

First, recognize you are not alone. Nearly every company today is under extreme pressure, and restructuring or other unpopular actions are common. There are ways to build and maintain trust, even in draconian times, but the leaders need to be highly skilled and transparent.

Unfortunately, most leaders shoot themselves in the foot when trying to manage in difficult times. They do lasting damage rather than build trust during the struggle.

Second, realize that usually you cannot control what goes on at levels above you. My favorite quote on this is,

“Never wrestle a pig. You get all muddy and the pig loves it.”

The best you can do is point out that approaches do exist that can produce a better result.

Suggesting your leader get some outside help and learn how to manage the most difficult situations in ways that do not destroy trust will likely backfire. Most managers with low emotional intelligence have a huge blind spot where they simply do not see that they have a problem.

One suggestion is to request that you and some of your peers go to, or bring in, a leadership trust seminar and request the boss come along as a kind of “coach” for the group.

Another idea is to start a book review lunch club where your peers and the boss can meet once a week to discuss favorite leadership books. It helps if the boss gets to nominate the first couple books for review.

The idea is to get the clueless boss to engage in dialog on topics of leadership and trust as a participant of a group learning process. If the boss is especially narcissistic, it is helpful to have an outside facilitator help with the interaction.

The key flavor here is to not target the boss as the person who needs to be “fixed,” rather view the process as growth for everyone. It will promote dialog and better understanding within the team.

Third, avoid whining about the unfair world above you, because that does not help the people below you feel better (it really just reduces your own credibility), and it annoys your superiors as well.

When you make a mistake, admit it and make corrections the best you can.

Fourth, operate a high trust operation in the environment that you influence. That means being as transparent as possible and reinforcing people when they bring up frustrations or apparent inconsistencies. This can be tricky because the lack of transparency often takes the form of a gag rule from on high.

You may not be able to control transparency as much as you would like. One idea is to respectfully challenge a gag rule by playing out the scenario with alternate outcomes. The discussion might sound like this,

“I understand the need for secrecy here due to the potential risks, but is it really better to keep mum now and have to finesse the situation in two weeks, or would we be better served being open now even though the news is difficult to hear. My observation is that most people respond to difficult news with maturity if they are given information and treated like adults.”

If your desire to be more transparent is overruled by the boss, you might ask him or her to tell you the words to use down the line when people ask why they were kept in the dark.

Another tactic is to ask how the boss intends to address the inevitable rumors that will spring up if there is a gag rule.

Keep in mind there are three questions every employee asks of others before trusting them:

1) Are you competent?,

2) Do you have integrity?, and

3) Do you care about me?

Fifth, lead by example. Even though you are operating in an environment that is not ideal, you can still do a good job of building trust. It may be tricky, but it can be done.

You will be demonstrating that it can be accomplished, which is an effective means to have upper management see and appreciate the benefits of high trust. Tell the boss how you are handling the situation, because that is being transparent with the boss.

Sixth, be patient and keep smiling; a positive attitude is infectious. Many cultures these days are basically down and morose. Groups that enjoy high trust are usually upbeat and positive. That is a much better environment to gain the motivation of everyone in your group.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Favoritism is a Huge Problem

July 5, 2010

Playing favorites is one of the most damaging problems in any group of people. Leaders who practice favoritism in the workplace have no chance to build a culture of trust. In business schools, they teach that the antidote for playing favorites is to treat everyone the same way. But this is a trap that can cause problems because it ignores the simple fact that all people are different.

On the occasion of the death of John Wooden, the great basketball coach from UCLA, Tony Robbins re-released an interview he did with John a few years before his death. In the interview, Tony was asking how John dealt with the issue of treating some players differently from the others. John made the following remarkable statement, “treating everyone the same is the surest way to show favoritism.”

The statement caught me off guard because I was always taught that we must treat everyone the same way to avoid the problem of being biased toward one person over another. John was suggesting that exactly the opposite phenomenon was happening. How could this be? To answer this question, we need to consider the nature of favoritism and its implications.

First, it is important to recognize we all have favorite people in our lives. You cannot have exactly the same feelings about different individuals. On some level, you are going to like being with or working with one person more than another. To deny any favoritism within you for other people is to deny your humanity.

So, I have favorites, but does this mean that I play favorites? I think so because I will instinctively want to slant my world conditions to be allowed to spend more time with people I like and less time with people I do not like. Then I will begin to worry that I am not treating people equally and perhaps over compensate to give preference for people I do not like as much in order to not appear biased. After a while it becomes impossible to tell if I am being fair or hopelessly partial.

Getting back to Wooden’s quote, if I treat everyone the same way, I am for sure being biased because each individual is unique. The needs of different people require me to treat them differently. In order to not show blatant favoritism, I must take into consideration individual needs and do my best to treat everyone the right way. This means NOT treating everyone the same way. But then, won’t I appear to be playing favorites to some outside observers. This conundrum can drive you slowly insane.

I believe there are some effective antidotes to this dilemma? Here are some simple ideas that can help:

1. Be aware of the issue of favoritism and use the word when a decision might be perceived as practicing it. Say, “I am asking George to do this budget revision again. Since I have done this in the past, I do not want to be perceived as playing favorites. George has the accounting background to do this work. If others of you would like to work with the budget, let me know and I will help you get some training so you can do it in the future.”

2. Operate outside your normal pattern for some percentage of the time. This allows you the opportunity to show you are not always picking a certain person for assignments. There may be some small risk in doing this, but you can mitigate it by selecting the application to change assignments.

3. Create a culture where cross training of people is routine. In doing so, you develop bench strength, and you can demonstrate less tendencies toward favoritism.

4. Be inclusive rather than exclusive with your language when you address groups. Your choice of words will give away your feelings toward others, so always seek to use language that reflects a broad rather than narrow range of people.

5. Be alert to your own body language. We communicate more through body language than words. It is important to be cognizant of your facial expressions and posture when interfacing with all people to not project a strong bias. If you are the kind of manager who pats people on the back, make sure you do that for everyone when it is deserved.

6. Test for your own biases. Most managers are not even aware of their tendency to play favorites, so it is difficult to see the damage to trust when it is happening. Seek out a trusted individual who will tell you if your actions are being perceived as slanted toward one or more individuals. Caution: do not select one of your favorite people to solicit this information or you will obviously defeat the purpose.

7. Build Trust – with high trust, people understand the intent of actions better and can interpret complex interpersonal issues between people.  If trust is low, people instinctively assume the worst intent rather than the best intent. 

These actions, along with a general awareness, can mitigate the problem of appearing to play favorites. Even though as a human being you do have favorite people, you can operate with fairness and integrity if you do not try to treat all individuals the same way in every instance.