Positive Reinforcement Programs Effect Culture Change

Positive Reinforcement Programs Effect Culture Change

It’s a business no-brainer that happy employees make better employees. But how do you get happy employees to deliver their best work on a consistent basis? It requires employees to move beyond simple compliance of workplace rules and become truly committed to the jobs they do. And moving people to commitment requires positive reinforcement in the leadership system.

Employee commitment and engagement have been identified as key drivers of a company’s profitability and human performance. Sadly, only 15 percent of employees say they are “actively engaged” at work. So, how precisely do you shift your workplace culture from “I have to do it or I’ll be in trouble” to “I want to do it because I believe in it”? And how do you get more positive reinforcement in your management system?

If you are a leader, your success in business will depend on your ability to deliver positive reinforcement, something that is rarely used by today’s managers and leaders. Though successful positive-reinforcement programs differ widely, their underlying processes are the same. Successful companies ask questions that lead to clear goals, longterm follow-through, and meaningful positive reinforcement.

Matching Behaviors To Positive Reinforcement

Managers new to positive-reinforcement programs often mistakenly focus on the kinds of positive reinforcement to offer instead of on the behaviors they want rewarded. They spend too much time deciding on the type of award to be used (will it be an iPad or a gift card? Pizza or hot dogs?) instead of concentrating on the behavior that needs to be changed.

Another common trap that many fall into is “one-size-fits-all” reinforcement systems. In these systems, everyone gets the exact same award, no matter how well or poorly they perform at work. The problem is that a one-size-fits-all approach to reinforcement actually erodes commitment and encourages noncompliance. In short, it breeds mediocrity. When we reward everyone in the same way, regardless of their level of effort, we are introducing a system that says it doesn’t matter how hard we all work because we’re all going to get the same thing.

Positive reinforcement can be delivered in some surprising and unexpected ways. Bob Nelson illustrates this same point in his book, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees. 1 He relates the story of a situation that occurred at the Hewlett-Packard Company. A team of workers had been plagued with a problem for weeks. An engineer came across the solution to the problem, and, overcome with enthusiasm, he burst into his manager’s office and blurted out the solution. Thrilled by this idea, the manager offered the only reward he could find at the moment—a banana left over from his lunch. The incident started a trend, and the Golden Banana Award is part of HP history.

True positive reinforcement needs to be individualized and delivered immediately after an employee does something right. That way, the employee will be more likely to repeat those behaviors in the future. If an employee demonstrates stellar customer-service work or goes above and beyond to make a guest or client happy, he or she should be recognized for that. Yes, they are doing their job and that’s what they’re paid to do, but studies show that a paycheck is not as big a motivator as your boss telling you what you did right and why it matters.


Selecting The Types Of Reinforcement

In my book Green Beans & Ice Cream,2 I reference an interesting study that describes how researchers used a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine to compare individuals’ normal brain states with their brain states when they are given money. Money produced a “thrill” response in the striatum, which is the same part of the brain that is stimulated by risk-taking activities such as skydiving and gambling. What’s most impressive to me is that the researchers found that when people were given feedback on what they did right, it stimulated the same brain area as money. So we can get the same impact on the human brain using positive reinforcement that we get with money. What’s more, there is no financial cost associated with positive reinforcement. So why isn’t it used more often? There are lots of ways to provide positive reinforcement, and here are a few “thought starters” to help you think of others that might work in your particular circumstances:

  • Recognition and verbal praise.
  • Time off with pay.
  • Asking for employee input and listening.
  • Acting on employee input or empowering the employee to make the process fix.
  • Calling the employee’s spouse/family to tell them what the employee did that was special.
  • Special assignments.
  • Advancement.
  • Increased autonomy.
  • Training and education.
  • Prizes and gifts.

(Companies that are successful with positive reinforcement programs have learned to set goals carefully, knowing that how you word a goal may lead to different results.)

Today’s managers can narrow down this list and choose positive reinforcement that can change an employee’s behavior by asking these three questions:

1) What result are we trying to achieve? Your positive reinforcement strategy must align with your corporate improvement goals. These may be in patient/guest/customer satisfaction, employee engagement, innovation, safety, productivity, or quality. Companies that are successful with positive-reinforcement programs have learned to set goals carefully, knowing that how you word a goal may lead to different results.

For example, improving safety performance is an obvious goal of many companies. Given that overall goal, employees can receive positive reinforcement based on many different criteria: offering safety suggestions, using proper behaviors to lift heavy objects, and demonstrating a gain of safety knowledge.

However, you have to be very careful rewarding lagging indicators like days without recordable accidents or months without lost-time injuries, because this may motivate employees to hide injury incidents and lead to OSHA citations. Instead, most firms now choose to reward safe behaviors as part of the growing trend toward behavioral safety techniques. In a program that is focused on proactive behavior, companies reward a number of “upstream behaviors” that ultimately produce a good safety record. Some of these behaviors include making safety suggestions, attending safety meetings, and assisting inspections. These programs produce solid results in long-term safety improvement.

A Minnesota firm that processes turkeys, Heartland Foods, aimed for a big change. When I interviewed Marie Huber, a safety health and training director at Heartland, she described the situation before the new system was put in place: “We had a high level of people who were on worker’s compensation—employees out on a long-term basis.” Using a behavior based positive-reinforcement system, Heartland went from 285 lost-time injuries to 14 in only 18 months, while simultaneously increasing employee engagement and retention.

Other companies seek to improve innovation. This was true for W. R. Grace, a specialty chemical manufacturer in Atlanta that implemented the Smartcard Positive Reinforcement System that I patented. Positive reinforcement helped sustain a record that is already impressive. In an interview with W. R. Grace’s plant manager, Vic Anapolle, he described the benefits that resulted from the system: “To date we’ve had over 800 suggestions implemented for a population of about 70 people, and we’ve documented over $250,000 in savings. That equates to about $1 million in sales per year. That doesn’t include the improvements in housekeeping, safety, and more.”

In a similar way, Heartland employees use “close-call” forms to report situations on the plant floor that could lead to record-able accidents and injuries. With a positive-reinforcement program in place, Huber state that “our employees came up with over 400 ways to improve quality, safety, and productivity in just three months.”

2) How can we get the most “bang” for our positive-reinforcement buck? Managers commonly assume that an extra $25, $50, or $100 added to an employee check would be the strongest positive reinforcement for employees. Even if that were true, that bonus can quickly vanish when eaten up by taxes or mundane expenses.

There are many forms of positive reinforcement that are more powerful than money. One company, a trucking firm that transports new cars, centered its program on a one-of-a-kind jacket with a special crest. To win the jacket, employees had to drive for three months without an accident. On the last day of the contest, one driver backed his truck into a light pole and damaged the back window of a new car. He asked if he could buy that car. He didn’t want to lose out and be the only guy at his terminal without a jacket.

W. R. Grace had a similar experience. Anapolle notes that no employee is going to get rich through the company’s positive-reinforcement program. Instead, the program’s goals are to increase employee engagement and commitment, generate money-saving suggestions, and recognize employees for their outstanding behavior on a regular basis.

3) How can we sustain it? Willingness to experiment and learn by trial and error is essential when creating a successful positive-reinforcement program. One way to reduce the learning curve is by finding out what other companies are doing and consult the recent literature on positive reinforcement. In my book, I outline hundreds of ways to positively reinforce your employees, and many of them cost nothing to implement or maintain.

(Willingness to experiment and learn by trial and error is essential when creating a successful positive-reinforcement program.)

Consistency and follow-through are key, according to Huber: “You can’t start a positive-reinforcement program and then walk away and expect that it’s going to run itself.”

Both Huber and Anapolle agree that reinforcement programs should be changed periodically so that they stay fresh. It’s also critical to be sure you are actually getting a result or “moving a needle” that improves your firm’s profitability.

Positive Reinforcement Improves Levels Of Engagement

Among the “how questions,” perhaps the most important is how to keep the focus on fundamentals. Positive reinforcement programs work when they tap into the reward that employees favor the most—an immediate, on-the-spot recognition by their managers of a job well done. The late Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, said, “There are two things people want more than money: recognition and praise.”3 Bosses who think they don’t need to tell their employees they are doing a good job are not fully engaging them. When it comes to engagement, every company has just three kinds of workers: noncompliant, compliant, and committed. Here’s what each looks like:

Noncompliant: “I will not follow your rules because I am convinced the only way to get high production is to take risks and shortcuts.”

Compliant: “I will follow your rules as long as someone (a manager, a supervisor, or a peer observer) is standing there watching me. But when that person leaves, I’ll take more risks and shortcuts.”

Committed: “I will follow the rules when nobody is watching and go above and beyond at work. This is who I am. …”

That ultimate level of employee engagement is commitment. And yet not many employees are truly committed to the job. Why? Because the management method most bosses use is the classic “leave alone/zap.” Simply put, it means that we leave employees alone and say nothing when they do something right (giving no positive feedback), but we are quick to “zap” (punish and negatively reinforce them) when they make a mistake. The problem with leave alone/zap management is that it doesn’t get you to the highest level of performance, engagement, and commitment. It only gets you a temporary change in behavior that lasts as long as it takes you and your big stick to leave the room.

(The problem with leave alone/zap management is that it doesn’t get you to the highest level of performance, engagement, and commitment.)

What I’ve learned from helping so many companies is that without positive reinforcement, you are getting less performance from your team than you could be, and your workplace culture will suffer. But if you use positive reinforcement to cultivate engaged, committed employees, all aspects of their work will improve. It is all about behavior change. Changing behavior can improve customer/patient satisfaction, employee retention, quality of care, safety, and more. You won’t get the best out of your people until you learn how to master the remarkable power of positive reinforcement.


1. Nelson, B. (2012). 1501 ways to reward employees. New York, NY: Workman Publishing Company. Originally published in 1994; revised and expanded in 2012.

2. Sims, B. Jr. (2012). Green beans & ice cream. Columbia, SC: Green Bean Leadership Publishing.

3. See note 1.

Bill Sims Jr., is president of the Bill Sims Company, Inc., which for more than 40 years has created behavior-based recognition programs that have helped large and small firms to inspire better performance from employees and increase bottom-line profits. He is a renowned keynote speaker and conducts leadership workshops globally. His book Green Beans & Ice Cream: The Remarkable Power of Positive Reinforcement is based on his seminar and experience having built more than 1,000 recognition programs at firms including DuPont, Siemens VDO, Coca-Cola, and Disney. He may be contacted via e-mail at bill.sims@billsims.net, or visit www.greenbeanleadership.com



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