I received an email recently and knew it was time to write this blog.

It was from Jennifer, an HR professional at a non-profit that I worked with for my dissertation research. In 2013, as part of my research, I recommended that the organization do a better job at recognizing employees, not just volunteers, donors, and business partners. A few months after my recommendation, the HR team initiated a program aptly named “25 Words or Less”. Its goal was to provide an outlet for employees to provide recognition for anyone in the organization. Housed on their internal website, the “25 Words or Less” list is, according to Jennifer, the most popular feature on their website. Nearly four years after my initial recommendation, the organization continues their efforts to better recognize staff achievements. The “25 Words or Less” archive for 2017 as of today contains hundreds of entries thanking people for efforts, both big and small.

As I scroll through the archive, I see some names I recognize and a lot that I do not. There are funny stories that must be inside jokes and others that bring you to tears in just a few sentences. Scroll, scroll, scroll and I cannot help but think how lucky I am to actually see the product of my research has become a living, breathing thing.

This is motivation in action.

This is gratitude in a few sentences evidenced over and over.

This is why people are the most important assets in any organization.

The reason I bring this to your attention today is because I think it is time to have “the talk.” No, that THAT talk! The talk about how to reinforce behavior at work and not be an ass about it.

THAT talk.

As I’ve said before, motivation is voluntary at its very core. No one can motivate anyone to do anything they ultimately do not want to do. Everyone has a choice to work or not work, cooperate or ignore, put up or shut up. Adults cannot and should not be treated like children in terms of reinforcing behavior–punished until they comply. As I told my students this week, kids may have to learn discipline through punitive measures, but you pull that crap with adults and the only thing they will tell you is where to shove this job.

contingencies of reinforcement

There are four ways to reinforce desirable behavior at work. The key for adults is how you present it. You can choose to reinforce behavior in a negative way or with a positive spin. Let’s take one example of behavior that needs to be changed: tardiness. Let’s say you are a manager of a small retail boutique and you have an employee who is consistently late. Unemployment is low and it is difficult to find good people who want to work weekends, so keeping this employee is important. Plus, they are a good worker and otherwise valuable employee. You even think they have management potential! There are four ways to reinforce the behavior you want and need for your organization.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement presents a pleasant consequence after a desired behavior. In other words, you do something good, you get something good. I use a potty training example in class–much to my students’ chagrin. When potty training a toddler (FYI – THE WORST JOB EVER), parents often resort to the 1:1 or 2:2 method. Meaning, big boy toddler gets 1 M&M for going “number one” and 2 M&M’s for going “number two.”

(Please do not make me explain what number one and two represent in potty training vernacular.)

The danger here is, when do you stop? What if my nearly 20-year old son came out of a stinky bathroom and asked, “Yo, mom, where’s my 2 M&M’s?” At some point, the positive reinforcement has to stop once the behavior is established. If an employer adopted a positive reinforcement strategy, would the employee come to expect the reward and the effect of the reinforcement be lost after the expectation was violated? In the case of the boutique manager, the use of positive reinforcement to reward on time attendance could involve something like employees with perfect on time attendance qualify for an increased 5% discount per quarter. If the regular discount was set at 20% and the positive reinforcement contingency is the additional 5%, then the potty training scenario of when to stop the reward is moot.


Extinction is the threat of the removal of the positive reinforcement already in effect. In order to use the extinction method, the positive reinforcement must already be active. The best example I’ve heard of this in real life is in Chicago schools. In 2012 NPR covered the story about how a school district in Chicago was looking for a way to raise test scores. Instead of giving the teachers the bonus for higher test scores at the end of the school year, they gave it to them upfront. In order to keep the bonus, the test scores would need to meet a certain standard at the end of the year. In the story, they call this “loss aversion” but for our example it also illustrates extinction. The motivation to keep the bonus–also the fear of having to return it–was the key to motivation. Research shows that extinction is the best method for long term behavior reinforcement.

If you think of it, in the case of the boutique manager, reframing the scenario is the best way to address the tardiness problem and puts the employee in the driver’s seat for change. The regular discount is 20% and the bonus for on time attendance is an additional 5%. The manager can pose the situation to the employee as, “hey, I know you really enjoy the additional 5% and I value you as an employee, but you were late yesterday, so you do not qualify for the additional 5% for this quarter. After the new quarter starts, you are eligible again as long as you are on time.” This method essentially disqualifies the participant from the positive reinforcement already in place temporarily until the behavior changes.

The point is not to punish, but to influence behavior. So, let’s talk about punishment.


Punishment presents an unpleasant consequence after an undesired behavior. I mean, do I really need to expand on this concept? Do something bad, receive something bad in return. In a home example, a teenager gets grounded for an unspecified amount of time because her grades have fallen. In the boutique manager’s case, perhaps each late occurrence means the employee is written up with escalating intensity after each occurrence. Here’s my main argument, HOW DOES WRITING SOMEONE UP HELP THEM GET TO WORK ON TIME? How does grounding a teenager help them improve their grades? What good is punishment but to serve as a way to piss off your employees (and your teens, for that matter)? Adults and punishment are a bad combination because of the underlying concept of motivation as voluntary. And, again, how does punishment help people fix what is wrong?

As in the positive reinforcement and extinction case, punishment is linked to negative reinforcement.

negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is the promise to remove punishment in order to motivate a change in behavior. Continuing with the teenager example, let’s say you walk into conferences and are surprised by your child having a “D” in Algebra. (I don’t know why our teenage boys couldn’t just tell us up front that we’d be walking into this situation, but I digress.) Using negative reinforcement, the parent might say to the teen, “You’re grounded until your grades improve in order for us to insure you have enough time in the evening to study.” Ideally, the teenager would be motivated to raise the grade in order to have the negative consequence removed. In the boutique manager’s case, you could argue that she would stop writing up the tardy employee when they stop being late, but is this enough of an incentive to change behavior? This is more to the point of forcing change, but it is framed in a negative light.

Bottom line

What I want my students (and readers) to grasp is that there are several ways to influence behavior. Not every situation needs to be framed in a negative light. Taking a positive stance on any change in behavior is better than using the negative option.

In Jennifer’s organization, they were able to improve their culture by instituting a positive, corporate-wide feedback method that celebrated accomplishments and cultivated gratitude. Instead of relying on line managers and those “in charge” to monitor the needs of the organization, here’s a way that the entire employee base can participate in voluntary behavior modification framed in a positive and fulfilling light.