“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.”—B.F. Skinner

Productivity requires motivation – and we all have different reasons for getting out of bed and tackling our to-do lists. That said, a little positive reinforcement, like the smell of fresh coffee, never hurts.

Positive reinforcement is critical in encouraging employees, motivating teams, and creating a more productive and happier work environment. According to research from The University of Warwick, workplaces with a more positive environment and happier employees are up to 37% more productive.

The process – not only the output – needs to be the reward. Positive reinforcement is an idea espoused by American psychologist B.F. Skinner, but seems highly self-evident (at least today). To increase productivity in the workplace and motivate employees, it’s a must to apply these ideas of positive reinforcement and create a positive environment.

The History of Positive Reinforcement

B.F. Skinner is considered the father of operant conditioning, a method of learning what works by introducing a positive or negative stimulus to encourage or discourage a specific behavior in subjects.

While Skinner is often credited for this, his ideas stem from the much earlier research on the Law of Effect, which was developed by Edward Thorndike back in 1898.

The Law of Effect is a simple principle that posits that behavior followed up by a pleasant consequence will increase the likelihood of it being repeated. Similarly, a negative consequence will decrease the chance of a behavior repeating.

Years later, Skinner expanded on the stimulus study and developed it further, coining the terms:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Negative reinforcement
  • Positive punishment
  • Negative punishment

These terms have since been used by many different psychologists and studied in experimental settings and observational studies.

Reinforcement Punishment
Positive Something pleasant is added to increase a behavior. Something unpleasant is added to decrease a behavior.
Negative Something unpleasant is removed to increase a behavior. Something pleasant is removed to decrease a behavior.

In his classic experiments performed on rats, Skinner studied how different stimuli would affect behavior. He would introduce a pleasant stimulus like food to reward a specific behavior, such as pushing a lever (i.e., Positive Reinforcement). Then, he added unpleasant things, like a light electric shock to prevent a behavior (i.e., Positive Punishment).

Throughout his studies, Skinner’s terms and methods became a fundamental part of psychology. Now, many different fields use these psychological principles, from authors of parenting books to managers working at tech companies like Google.

Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace

Positive reinforcement is nothing new in the workplace. Going back as far as the idea of work itself, managers have always offered incentives to their employees to improve productivity and profitability. But it isn’t always as simple as “reward good behavior and results will follow”.

In 2006, one Sears location was trying to improve the number of store credit card applications. The manager tried to incentivize the team by pointing out how it would benefit the store and help them boost sales. After the initial meeting announcing the program, there was a slight boost in applications, but it dropped soon after.

Many customers declined the cards, making the staff less likely to offer the applications. The customers were inadvertently creating a situation of positive punishment (where every rejection reinforced the negativity). Not only was there the adverse impact of negative punishment, but there was also a lack of positive reinforcement as the workers were not motivated by the company profiting.

The managers devised a new strategy. For every customer that signed up for a store credit card, employees would get a $2 bonus on their paychecks and an added $25 bonus to the employee with the highest number of applications per month.  Regardless of whether or not the customer was approved, employees would get their perks. Now they were using positive reinforcement to motivate their team and increase the behavior they wanted to see.

After the new bonus program launch, the number of credit card applications rose significantly. That particular location soon had the highest number of applications in their state.

With the right kind of rewards, people will act upon them, and your team’s performance can grow significantly. At Sears, they saw their productivity skyrocket.

So, how exactly does increasing productivity with positive reinforcement work?

positive reinforcement productivity positive reinforcementWhy Positive Reinforcement Boosts Productivity

Aside from encouraging the right behaviors, there are other reasons positive reinforcement improves productivity. It’s also worth noting that reinforcement works better than punishment, as many studies have found.

Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to improve employee performance and create a more productive environment. Rewarding your team positively will help them perform better, thanks to:

  • Reduced turnover rates. Companies that have employee recognition policies show lower turnover rates, as well as stronger organization-wide results. Lower turnover rates mean less time spent recruiting and training staff, boosting your productivity across the board.
  • Positive work environment. Not surprisingly, when you’re rewarding your team, the work environment becomes more positive, and employees are happier. As a result, their productivity goes up, project turnaround time improves and the company thrives.
  • More innovative ideas. By rewarding employees for their contributions to the business, they’ll continue to seek more innovative solutions and share them. This also improves productivity because the team works more efficiently and actively finds ways to increase workflow efficiency.
  • Encouraging growth and development. Positive reinforcement also helps people to not just do better but want to do better. You’re encouraging people to engage in behaviors that help them and the team around them, which means they are going to feel supported as they develop new skills.

When you incorporate positive reinforcement into your management style, you’re fostering a better overall environment. And that is how you boost productivity in the long term—not just the short term.

How to Introduce Positive Reinforcement

If you’re looking for ideas to get started, here are six different ways to reward teams. These are methods for increasing productivity with positive reinforcement and creating a workplace that everyone will love.

1. Financial Incentives

As with the Sears case study above, financial motivations can definitely shape the behavior of your team. However, it’s important to avoid creating divisions and unhealthy internal competition. If you’re using financial incentives, be sure employees are still motivated for the right reasons and feel supported in a diverse variety of ways.

2. Better Workspaces

Another type of reward is to improve the physical space for your employees. For example, Nike has multiple sports and fitness facilities for their employees to use. They have everything from basketball courts to an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

While you don’t have to create an entire sports center, even just a separate room for fitness activities can have a positive impact. Companies that have onsite gyms show lower rates of absenteeism and a boost in productivity.

These efforts of positive reinforcement and better work environments show employees that they are valued in the long-term and that management values their wellbeing.

basketball court positive reinforcement

3. Recognition & Approval

While physical or monetary rewards come to mind first, employee recognition also makes a difference.

Showing employees approval doesn’t just mean giving promotions, gifts, and bonuses. It’s also beneficial to implement recognition for successes, celebrations for anniversaries and milestones, public shout-outs for achievements, and team celebration calls to celebrate big wins.

Simply recognizing achievements (both big and small) can go a long way.

4. Opportunity for Professional Growth

Today, 87% of Millennials believe that professional development is an important part of a job. More employees want opportunities to grow their skillsets within a company.

Companies with tuition assistance show increased employee engagement and greater job satisfaction. So, if you’re looking to recruit and keep top talent, then providing opportunities for them to grow (such as funding relevant courses and career advancement) is key.

5. Choice of Work Assignments & Flexibility

Another added incentive you can try with your team is giving them more choices in their assignments and work schedules. After the pandemic, 52% of employees say they would prefer a more flexible, hybrid work model.

The freedom to choose your schedule is also good for mental health. In nursing homes, for example, patients with more autonomy are happier and have better intrinsic motivation because they feel they have more control. While a nursing home is different from an office environment, the idea holds.

Simply giving employees the choice of what work they want to do and when and where they want to do it leads to happier, more satisfied people.

Positive Reinforcement is a Productive Loop

When it comes to improving productivity, a little bit of positive reinforcement can go a long way. Whether it’s a simple compliment, a promotion, or a reward for the entire team like a new fitness room, positive reinforcement can inspire everyone to deliver their peak performance. By applying these principles to your organization, you will see a host of benefits from higher productivity to lower turnover rates.

Once it starts, it results in a cycle where a happier workforce delivers better work, which results in further reinforcement until your success knows no limits. Or, at least, that’s the idea.

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