Flora (2004), defines negative reinforcement as an increase in the rate of behavior following the removal or prevention of an aversive event or stimulus. In the work environment, negative reinforcement may be a useful tool to foster employee motivation. Employees are coming up with new and improved ways of doing everyday tasks faster and efficiently, to avoid hard working conditions. By adding an unpleasant condition to the working environment, employees may be motivated to perform better, to avoid the said condition. This article will explore the history of negative reinforcement, how different it is from punishment, and how it is useful in a working environment.
The history of negative reinforcement
Negative reinforcement is a branch of behavioral psychology that was propounded by the prominent American Psychologist, B.F. Skinner (Skinner, 1938). He argued that negative reinforcement is superior to punishment in shaping behavior (Skinner, 1948). Though punishment may seem the same as negative reinforcement, Skinner contended that they differ immensely, saying that punishment changes behavior only temporarily (short-term) and has many detrimental side-effects, whereas negative reinforcement results in lasting behavioral modification (long-term) (Skinner, 1948).
Why is negative reinforcement a useful tool in the work environment?
Effectively managing people in a company leads to outstanding individual performances that, in turn, leads to great organizational performance (Caston, Daniels & Tapscott, 2003). Negative reinforcement strengthens the development of the target behavior. For example, employees will work hard during normal business hours if they know failing to complete a project will cause you to require overtime. The good behavior, hard work, is reinforced when you remove the negative stimulus: working overtime. As a result, employees become more productive and strive towards the common goal of the organization (Flora, 2004).
Examples of negative reinforcement in the workplace
Weekly Training Meetings
In some organizations, employees may be required to attend weekly or periodic training meetings. The goals of these meetings may include improving sales and service performance. Often, these meetings occur because of poor or limited performance by employees. A manager could use negative reinforcement to promote improved performance by offering to discontinue these meetings depending on employee achievements. Employees do not often enjoy these routine meetings and may work hard to achieve sales, service, or production standards to see the meetings end.
Saturday Work Days
Some companies have six-day work weeks and often require employees to come in on Saturdays. Realizing that employees would typically prefer to not work on Saturdays, a manager could offer to end Saturday workdays if employees achieve levels of performance necessary during the five-day workweek. This not only serves as motivation for employees, but it can also improve their energy and enthusiasm for their work based on more personal time to relax. By removing the negative working condition that is coming into the office on a Saturday, the employer may promote productivity among his employees.
Nagging Your Employees
Constantly being reminded to be more productive, often seen as nagging or badgering by employees, is a negative reinforcement technique. It may be used intentionally or unintentionally, but it creates a negative condition in which the employees are subjected to an unpleasant situation. When they reach the productivity level desired, the nagging stops, which reinforces the desired behavior. To avoid being constantly nagged, employees will strive to work much more efficiently, to achieve the anticipated outcomes.
Random drug testing in the workplace
Workplace drug testing is another method of striving to create the desired environment through negative reinforcement. Random drug tests create an environment in which employees fear losing their jobs if they use banned substances. While this may not seem particularly unpleasant to employees who do not use drugs, it still creates a negative reinforcement situation because not participating in the unwanted behavior removes the negative stimulus, which is one losing their job.
The down-side of negative reinforcement
Consider a situation where employees who make mistakes are reprimanded in front of their peers or even spoken to harshly in private. This is punishment rather than negative reinforcement for the individual employee, but it also creates a more general negative environment, causing employees to strive to avoid mistakes to avoid the unpleasant condition. This type of negative reinforcement can backfire, however, encouraging employees to hide their mistakes rather than correct them. Holding employees accountable for their mistakes, but in a constructive way rather than through punishment, creates a milder negative feeling around mistakes, eliminating the punishment aspect while still discouraging the unwanted behavior.
Not all negative reinforcement is beneficial to a business or its employees. In some cases, managers unintentionally use negative reinforcement by training to put a temporary fix on a burden. As an example, if a manager announces that lunch breaks will change from one hour to 30 minutes, he will likely hear complaints and frustration among employees. By quickly going back on the change in response to the complaints, he has negatively reinforced that complaining about policies, is the way to get them changed or removed.
Another example of a poor result of negative reinforcement relates to the expectation that employees participate in department meetings or training sessions and other internal activities. A positive reinforcer might include a drawing or small perk for employees when they meet this expectation. Instead, if managers choose to cancel the meetings and events in response to low attendance, they effectively reinforce that avoiding unwanted work activities means they will eventually go away.
While negative reinforcement may be critical in fostering productivity, it is always important to use it in moderation. Too much of it may border on punishment, which only promotes a negative working environment, and suppresses productivity.
Lindah Mavengere is a Business Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a business management and human resources consulting firm.
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Flora S (2004). The Power of Reinforcement. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Skinner, B. F. "The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis", 1938 New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts
Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden Two. Toronto: The Macmillan Company.
AC Daniels, D Tapscott, A Caston, (2003) Bringing out the best in people. University of New York Press.
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