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Management Styles: Positive and Negative Reinforcement

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For some business leaders, the actions that companies must take to have a banner year are every bit as mysterious as the fluctuations of the stock market. Rather than set goals and take intentional actions to ensure the goals are accomplished, these managers act as if a company’s success or failure is a matter of chance. But the reality is that great workplaces require focused and intentional action, and great employees require positive or negative reinforcement -- and sometimes both.

Employee Performance May Earn Rewards

An employee’s experience with positive reinforcement might have begun with the candy bar that followed his first trip to the doctor’s office. After that experience, it’s likely that blue ribbons and other trophies followed in short order. In each case, the award reinforced good behavior because the receipt of a reward followed the achievement of a performance goal. If a person values the reward he receives, it’s likely he’ll repeat the behavior in the hopes that, once again, he will receive that reward or another of equal value. In the workplace, managers bestow positive rewards to make it more likely employees will exhibit behaviors that support the company’s goals. For example, a company might give a trip or car to a salesperson in exchange for achieving a certain sales volume. Other incentives include cash bonuses, office parties and public recognition.

Implementing Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement doesn't require a massive reward system to cover any-and-all reward opportunities. In some cases, positive reinforcement may take the form of a handshake and a thank-you from upper management. In other cases, the company plans the rewards, such as sales bonuses, months in advance. In all cases, employees should be aware of the performance the company is rewarding. For example, “Bill beat his sales revenues target by $1.3 million.” In all instances, the company should set specific standards to reward particular levels of performance. A customer service representative might receive a three-day weekend for resolving the most issues in a week’s time. In addition, a company should recognize an employee’s achievements immediately after they occur.

Employee Performance May Avert Negative Outcomes

Negative reinforcement can be as effective as positive reinforcement in encouraging employees to exhibit certain behaviors. In this case, management implements a negative consequence if a goal is not achieved by an employee. Consequently, the employee avoids a negative outcome by performing a desired behavior. For example, the manager may tell a work group that they must work Saturday to complete a tax return if it's not completed before end-of-business Friday. In this case, the employees are encouraged to complete the tax return by Friday to avoid working on Saturday. The negative consequence reinforces the performance of a desired behavior -- achieving a particular goal -- because it's the achievement of this goal that will allow an employee to avoid a negative consequence. The more opposed the employee to the consequence, the more likely he will perform the desired behavior.

Implementing Negative Reinforcement

Like positive reinforcement, managers implement negative reinforcement by using formal and informal means. For example, a manager may state an employee must stay later than 5 p.m. if he takes more than an hour for lunch. In contrast, a policy might be in place to demote an employee if he fails to adhere to company safety policies, when doing so places co-workers in danger. Each time negative reinforcement is applied, the manager should explain to the employee the specific consequences of a particular behavior. The consequences should be implemented as soon as possible after the employee’s failure to achieve the related objectives.


Billie Nordmeyer works as a consultant advising small businesses and Fortune 500 companies on performance improvement initiatives, as well as SAP software selection and implementation. During her career, she has published business and technology-based articles and texts. Nordmeyer holds a Bachelor of Science in accounting, a Master of Arts in international management and a Master of Business Administration in finance.

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