Why Use Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace and How

positive reinforcement

Managing people might be the most difficult part of the managerial role. And still, this is the one that determines the ultimate success or failure of the enterprise. Often, managing people requires motivating them to perform the desired action while also minimizing any unwanted behavior. Here is where positive reinforcement can help.

The Science Behind Positive Reinforcement

The most prominent psychological theory of how to affect the behavior of other people was developed by B.F.Skinner and is known as operant conditioning. The core idea that gave rise to the theory is that people tend to repeat the behavior that has resulted in pleasant consequences and avoid the behavior that has resulted in unpleasant ones.

According to this theory, reinforcement teaches people what to do, while punishment – what not to do. The problem with punishment is that it doesn’t make people want to change their behavior and does not guide towards a desired one. In fact, negative behavior returns as soon as punishment is no longer present. What’s more, punishment causes aggression and fear.

On the other hand, reinforcement can be used to modify behavior. Skinner distinguished between two types of reinforcement:

  • Positive reinforcement: providing a reward as a consequence of behavior, which you want to reinforce. For example, giving a bonus for timely completion of a project.
  • Negative reinforcement: withdrawing a negative consequence due to the behavior, which you want to reinforce. For example, refusing from close monitoring of employees’ performance or strict working schedule in response to good performance metrics, giving negative feedback, asking the employee to redo the work until it is done the right way. In these cases, if there is no ‘good’ behavior, the negative consequence persists.


While both positive and negative reinforcement motivates towards the desired behavior, the best results can be achieved with positive reinforcement. Such an idea is backed up with research by Heaphy and Losana who studied 60 business leadership teams and their performance. It turned out that a ratio of positive-to-negative reinforcement in the highest performing teams was 5.6 to 1, while in the lowest-performing teams it was 1 to 3.

Now, when you can see the power of positive reinforcement, let us tell you more about how you can use it in the workplace.

4 Types of Positive Reinforcers

There are four types of positive reinforcers that you can use to motivate employees:

  • Natural reinforcers. Natural reinforcers are the ones that naturally occur as a result of the behavior. For example, an employee develops a new skill and completes his work in less time applying the skill in practice; employees do their work well and the customers are satisfied with the provided product or service.
  • Token reinforcers. Tokens represent a certain value, which can later be exchanged for a tangible reward. For example, an employee may get score points for certain accomplishments. When an employee reaches a certain score number, he gets a bonus or a salary raise.
  • Social reinforcers. Social reinforcers are the expression of approval of behavior and verbal praise. People are social creatures and have a psychological need for feeling competent and helpful. Recognition of one’s achievements and contributions is a powerful tool promoting the desired behavior.
  • Tangible reinforcers. Tangible reinforcers are actual physical or tangible rewards. There are a wealth of examples for the workplace environment: a bonus, a promotion, a pay raise, a better office, a parking lot, health insurance, a corporate car, etc.


While it is so easy to associate workplace with tangible reinforcers, natural and social reinforcers are considered the most powerful. This is because intrinsic motivation, the internal wish to act in a certain way, is a more powerful motivator than an external reward. It is vital to mind this using positive reinforcement to motivate your team.

4 Rules for Effective Positive Reinforcement in a Team

Positive reinforcement can help you build a culture of confidence and success, but it is important to follow certain rules that make the technique work.

1. Leverage team strengths to tap into natural and social reinforcers

As noted earlier, natural reinforcers are considered the most effective in nurturing the desired behavior. However, it is impossible to apply them directly. A good way to do this is to study the strengths of the team and, thus, encourage employees to use their best strengths or point to the opportunities where they can do so. Research confirms that focusing on one’s strengths brings about better performance, which will act as a natural reinforcer making an individual leverage one’s strengths more often.

What is more, a High5Test Team Report will teach a leader to use verbal prize not only when it’s related to good completion of tasks, but also when it related to team development. For example, knowing that one’s strength is maintaining a focus or resolution of conflicts, you will be more likely to spot the signs of such behavior and reinforce it with the words of approval and recognition.

2. Be specific about what you are reinforcing

For the reward to have the desired effect, an employee should clearly associate the reward with specific behavior that you want to reinforce. Thus, if you want to reinforce good performance, it is necessary to have clear criteria about what performance is considered good and apply rewards immediately when these criteria are met.

For example, giving a bonus when an employee concludes a great deal will be a more powerful reinforcement than giving a bonus for the same achievement during a regular performance review taking place sometime later. A good practice is to use a visual aid, for example, a graph showing an increase in sales when introducing a reward. Such a testimony will be a natural reinforcer and a reason for others to praise a high-performing coworker.

3. Avoid an association between reinforcement and punishment

Mind that reinforcement happens as a result of a subconscious emotional response to the reward. If reward and punishment are applied simultaneously, they become subconsciously linked and lose their impact.

For example, one of the leadership mistakes is to hold weekly meetings to reward good performance and apply punishment for unproductivity. Reinforcement and punishment affect not only those, to whom they are applied. They also teach the observers about possible consequences of their own future actions. This way, even being rewarded, an employee may feel fear of possible future punishment. What is more, some employees may feel like they are rewarded just for the sake of balancing the meeting with some positive news.

4. Use reinforcers consistently but not all the time

Skinner has experimented much with the schedules of reinforcement and revealed that continuous reinforcement leads to fast abandoning of behavior when it’s no longer reinforced (extinction). Variable ratio reinforcement – reinforcement after an unpredictable number of times when the desired behavior is displayed – on the contrary, proved to be the most effective in retaining good reinforcement results.

How can a good leader use this knowledge? Choose variable rather than fixed intervals for a performance review. Don’t thank or reward your employees each time they come on time or have exemplary order on their working spaces – do this unpredictably, after a varying number of times you noted such behavior.

All in all, positive reinforcement is a powerful technique that can help you nurture the desired behavior in your team. Try acting according to the provided reinforcement rules, and you will soon see what a great impact it can make on the productivity and wellbeing of your employees.

the team strengths report

Tap into natural positive reinforcers of your team by identifying its strengths