What is Leadership, Really? Part 4: Leadership is the Application of Positive Reinforcement

By October 1, 2012 No Comments

Part 4 of 4

So, both negative and positive reinforcement will get more behavior, but, all other things being equal, that is where the similarities end.  One breeds resistance and cynicism, while the other breeds initiative and empowerment.  At this point, there may be a number among you who agree in principle that positive reinforcement is the superior method of motivating behavior, BUT, you may say, “I have tried it, and it doesn’t work!”  As evidence of your efforts, you may point to your incentive program, or you may think of all of the goodwill efforts that you have tried to bolster morale – wasn’t that what those t-shirts were for, after all?

Behavior Does Not Equal Results

To this argument, I would like to respond by emphasizing three points.  First, I want to emphasize that positive reinforcement for behavior and incentives for results are not the same thing.  For one thing, while behavior is directly under the control of the performer, results may not be.   If we limit our “reinforcement” efforts to rewards for results, we will miss many opportunities to encourage those whom we are trying to influence when they are doing the right thing.  They may very well give it their best, but have factors outside of their control ruin the results.  What happens when we engage in a behavior, and then don’t get the outcome that we want?  Extinction of the behavior!  If we want to maximize the likelihood that we will attain the results we desire, we need to define the behaviors needed – the critical behaviors that must happen in order for the desired outcome to be possible – and then look for them, reinforcing the needed behaviors at every opportunity.

Catch Them Doing The Right Thing

The second point that I would like to make is that positive reinforcement for behavior should be done in such a way as to maximize its contingent relationship with the behavior at which it is targeted.  We will be most effective with our application of positive reinforcement when we catch the person “in the act” of doing the right thing, and positively reinforcing their efforts in the moment.  The second most effective thing that we can do (and only as a fall back when we can’t be there in the moment) is to use the question “How did you do that?” when someone has produced a result that we need.  By letting them tell their story, you will give them the opportunity to relive their effort, and giving you the opportunity to identify their performance of the critical behavior and apply positive reinforcement.  As a general rule, the more immediate the positive reinforcement given the performance of the behavior, and the more certain that the positive reinforcement is to occur given the behavior, the more effective it will be.  Incentives, when considered in relation to the behaviors that they are intended to reinforce, are both extremely delayed, and, since they are based on the results and not behaviors, they are also relatively uncertain to occur given the behavior, making them very ineffective reinforcers for behavior.  In addition, many incentives are given to all employees, without discriminating at all whose efforts really produced the results in question.  There is nothing as demotivating as seeing the person who did nothing receive the exact same reward as the highest performer.  No one will turn down the money, but you are not getting the bang for your buck either.  I am definitely NOT saying that you should stop trying to share the success of your business with the employees, but, if you are not “building the bridge” by using positive reinforcement for behaviors on a daily basis to link the momentary effort with the delayed rewards, there is much that you can do to maximize your incentive dollars.

The third point that I will make regarding positive reinforcement is that your efforts to provide a positive outcome don’t qualify your behavior as positive reinforcement, only the response of the performer can do that.  As the influencer, we get to try stuff and watch.  If the performer receives our efforts as positive reinforcement, we will be able to tell by their response; by definition, they will be more likely to perform that behavior again in the future.  This fact has two implications.  First, the application of positive reinforcement cannot be manipulation.  If I, as the performer, ever suspect that you are trying to manipulate me, it will not matter what you try, I will resist all attempts at influence.  It is the performer, not the reinforcer, that gets to decide if the reinforcement efforts are positive or not – the follower holds the power.  The second implication of this third point is that there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” reinforcer.  The t-shirt may send one person over the moon, while another may despise it.  Public recognition may stroke the ego of one person, while sending another into panic and tremors.  Ultimately, the effectiveness of our attempts to reinforce will be maximized when we are reinforcing someone out of the relationship that we have built with them.  We may reach a satiation point with stuff, but we never grow tired of feeling genuinely valued and appreciated.  If you want to mark the occasion, you may want to present a token when you reinforce, but the value of the reinforcer shouldn’t be intrinsically tied to the value of the token, but rather to the value of the relationship.

So, What Makes a Leader a Leader?

We have reached the end of this article on leadership, and I have yet to say anything overtly about leadership, so let me conclude with this – leadership is an attribute that is assigned by followers to the person that they associate positively with motivating their behavior.  Ultimately, we don’t get to decide if we are a leader of others, only others can decide that, and they will only attribute leadership to the individual who is using positive reinforcement to get their behavior to align with the efforts of the group and produce the results toward which the group is striving.  Leadership doesn’t have to do with your personality.  It doesn’t have to do with your charisma.  It doesn’t have to do with your gender or your height.  It is not something with which you are born.  Leadership is the application of positive reinforcement to motivate behavior in others, and is something that anyone can learn to do.  Lastly, if your intentions to use positive reinforcement as a method of motivation are genuine, your efforts will be felt by those on the receiving end.  When this is the case, you can never do it wrong, but, as you will find as you journey down the positive reinforcement path, you can always do it better.  The time to start is now!

Part 3: Which Do You Want: A Vicious or Virtuous Cycle?

Part 2: The New Lens

Part 1: The Dilemma

Jonathan KrispinJonathan Krispin is a speaker and consultant based in Valdosta, GA, working primarily in the areas of strategic planning, business process improvement, organizational development, and leadership development. He is currently working on a book on leadership that adopts a trans-disciplinary approach.

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