The science of behavior has much to teach us about how to improve performance and create a more engaged culture. One of the key teachings from the science is that precise application of positive reinforcement is required to achieve exemplary performance, or what we call discretionary effort. In most organizations, there is not enough positive reinforcement to ensure that behaviors occur at the right frequency, with high fidelity, and without hesitation. While increasing the amount of positive reinforcement for critical behaviors sounds relatively simple, actually making it happen is relatively complex. It is often not just about adding positive reinforcement to the web of consequences that exist in every organization. It requires understanding what is currently supporting desired and undesired behaviors in the workplace and making adjustments to the mix of consequences. To do that requires first understanding all the sources of consequences that influence organizational behavior. Once the sources are understood and analyzed, it is possible to systematically align those sources of consequences so that they work in concert to positively reinforce critical behaviors and create discretionary effort. Below are the major sources of both positive and negative consequences.
Self—Individuals are a source of their own consequences whether they realize it or not. What we tell ourselves (“You did a good job!), and the feelings or physiological reactions that are produced following a behavior (feeling proud or excited, increased heart rate, feeling embarrassed or ashamed), can serve to strengthen or weaken our behavior.
Peers—Co-workers are another source of consequences—what they say and do, what they attend to, and what they ignore related to you and your behavior. Examples include a thumbs-up, giving a peer a hard time, offering to help, or watching someone work while talking with others.
Management—Direct supervisors and other leaders are another source of consequences. Examples include praising a performer for going a good job, offering resources, providing desirable assignments, asking questions to connect behavior to natural reinforcers, only attending to someone when they make a mistake, or pointing out that someone is still a long way from a goal.
Organizational—Consequences are also embedded in organizational systems. Examples include hiring and promotion systems, measurement systems, and compensation systems—including bonuses and incentives.
Natural—Natural consequences are those that occur either as part of a work process or as a direct result of the behavior. Examples include a smooth sales meeting after spending time preparing, a client’s demeanor changing after asking about a successful project, and reduced dexterity when putting on safety gloves.
As these examples demonstrate, consequences from all sources can either work for or against the organization in promoting desired behavior. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for the consequences from different sources to compete with each other. For example, management may make a deliberate effort to positively reinforce following safety procedures, but if the organization’s incentive system is tied primarily to production, it may encourage taking safety shortcuts. Such misalignment can be uncovered by analyzing all sources of consequences and observing the impact each has on behavior.
To create discretionary effort organizations must look to align as many sources of consequences as possible to provide positive reinforcement for desired behaviors. Systematically reviewing and aligning positive reinforcement can accelerate the achievement of business results.