Reinforcement Theory

Understanding Skinner's Behavioral Reinforcement Theory

According to psychologist B. F. Skinner, people learn to perform behaviors that lead to desired consequences and learn not to perform behaviors that lead to undesired consequences.
  • Skinner’s Behavioral Reinforcement theory is based on the premise that behavior that is rewarded is likely to be repeated, whereas behavior that is punished is less likely to recur.
  • Reinforcement is an action that follows directly from a particular behavior. It may be a pay raise following a particularly large sale to a new customer or a reprimand for coming to work late.

Translated into motivation terms, the behavioral reinforcement theory means that employees will be motivated to perform at a high level to the extent that they obtain outcomes that they desire.

Skinner argued that people will most likely engage in desired behaviors if they are positively reinforced for doing so, and rewards are most effective if they immediately follow the desired response. In addition, behavior that isn’t rewarded or is punished is less likely to be repeated.

Skinner’s theory provides four tools that managers can use to motivate high performance and prevent workers from engaging in behaviors that detract from organization effectiveness.

We’ll spend the remainder of this study delving deeper into each, but for now, here they are in ascendent order.

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1.   Positive Reinforcement

A positive reinforcement is one that strengthens desired behavior by providing a reward. One example of an inexpensive reward system is provided underneath Positive Reinforcement: The CandyGram.

Giving employees the outcomes that they desire when they perform behaviors that contribute to organizational effectiveness is considered positive reinforcement. For example, many employees respond well to praise; recognition from their supervisors for a job well done increases (strengthens) their willingness to perform well in the future.

Positive Reinforcement: The CandyGram  

In Getting Them to Give a Damn, author Eric Chester specifically addresses recruiting and retaining a younger, emerging workforce. But he presents at least one idea that will work for employees of any age.

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Opens in new window encourages employees to participate in “CandyGram,” a nominally priced recognition program. To recognize a co-worker, employees attach a note to one of the following edible items:

Lifesavers candiesFor a person who has been a real “lifesaver”
Strawberry jamFor a person who has helped you out of a “jam”
100 Grand Candy BarFor a person who saves you a lot of money
Nestle Crunch BarFor a person who was there for you during “crunch” time
Zero barFor a person who completes a project with no mistakes—or “zero” errors
Mr. GoodbarFor a person who possesses a great attitude
York Peppermint PattyFor a person who is invaluable— “he or she is worth a mint!”
Adapted from Eric Chester’s Getting Them to Give a Damn.

2.   Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement also can encourage behaviors that contribute to organizational effectiveness. Managers might choose to use negative reinforcements to eliminate an undesired outcome when a specific behavior is performed.

Examples of negative reinforcement include management criticism, unpleasant assignments, or job-elimination threats. When negative reinforcement is used, employees are motivated to perform behaviors because they want to stop receiving the undesired outcomes.

3.   Punishment

Punishment involves an act of administering an undesired or negative consequence when a dysfunctional behavior is performed. Punishments can take various forms including pay cuts, suspensions, discipline, and termination.

Punishments can also have unintended side effects such as resentment, loss of self-respect, and a desire for retaliation. Managers should use punishment only when other options proved abortive.

4.   Extinction

Extinction is the process of eliminating whatever reinforces an undesired behavior. For example, if you have a co-worker who likes to come into your office and talk about nonwork topics, what can you do?

While you like the person and enjoy the conversations, those breaks put you behind schedule, and you have to work late to catch up. By acting disinterested in the nonwork topics, you discourage the behavior.

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