Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace

A colleague of mine recently shared on LinkedIn an older Harvard Business Review article, “Why Compassion Is a Better Managerial Tactic than Toughness,” which examines the use of empathy in the workplace.

The author, Emily Seppälä, provides anecdotal and data-driven evidence that managing with kindness yields better workplace outcomes—and happier employees—than toughness, critique, or criticism.

The timing of my colleague’s post couldn’t have been better, as my brain has been working overtime worrying about COVID-19—its impact on the world, our communities, my family, my work—and making space in my home and my life for a six-month-old puppy. In other words, I’m emotionally overtaxed and emotionally overjoyed. 

When adopting an animal from a shelter, like PAWS Chicago, you must agree, contractually, to train your new pal using positive reinforcement. I admit, I knew the concept but not its definition—or its alternatives. When I’m not putting on my mask to take this pupper for a stroll, I’m usually googling his newest quirk or question I have. But I’m also thinking about how the work I’m doing at home relates to the work I do for a paycheck, and the overlap is remarkable.

So first, a quick primer on two central behavior principles—that apply to training of dogs as well as managing teams of humans—before I turn my focus back to the workplace. (And of course, there are many more styles of dog training and of management and leadership than just positive and negative reinforcement.)

Positive ReinforcementA method of behavior management that focuses on rewarding what’s good so it becomes a habit. Instead of shouting “quiet” when a dog barks, you reward silence with a treat and head pat, for example. Instead of shouting “no” when he chews on the your bookshelf, you provide a more desirable alternative—like a bacon-scented squeaky bone. 
In the workplace, this may look like employee-of-the-month awards, certificates of appreciation, or a good, old-fashioned pat on the back (virtually is acceptable too!) for a job well done. 
Negative Reinforcement A method of behavior management that focuses on removing something to discourage undesirable behaviors. For example, when walking a dog on a leash you may maintain pressure to steer the pup around a corner. When the dog makes the turn you want, you remove the pressure. 
In the workplace, this may look like offering to pull down a scheduled touchpoint if your team exceeds expectations. Here, the undesirable behavior is underperforming, and the removal is the cancellation of another-meeting-that-should-have-been-an-email.

What’s funny about learning to train your dog using positive reinforcement techniques is the way it makes you truly attend to your expressions of compassion—not just toward your pup but also toward yourself. 

At every bark, corner, and accident, you need to remember to respond calmly and with kindness. 

At every nip of your heels, instead of saying no and running away to safety, you need to stand still and turn your back to demonstrate that you don’t play if your pup won’t place nice. It’s challenging, and all too easy to focus on the times you didn’t react the way you’d like.

I’m an English PhD, so books and bookshelves are a prominent element of my home. They also happen to be an exceedingly soft—and attractive—target for my new power-chewer roommate. It’s been the challenge of my life not to reward (with shouts, physical touch, attention) each time the doggo goes for a hardcover snack. But the more I show him rewards (treats, pets, attention) for the things I do like—like sitting, waiting, snuggling sweetly, watching and not barking—the more often he gives me that behavior, and the less often I have to bite my tongue and redirect his attention. So long, The Flamethrowers. I hardly knew ye.

But back to the workplace. The HBR article explored how positive reinforcement can not only build loyalty and trust but also enhance creativity. To make a compassionate response more likely, the article provides three tips:

  1. Take a moment.
  2. Put yourself in your employees’ shoes.
  3. Forgive.

I’d like to suggest a nuance to that second piece of advice. Yes, seeing the situation from your employee’s perspective is incredibly valid, but I think your first move should be assuming the best about your employee

Trust in Generosity: A Kinder Approach for the Workplace

My mother’s golden rule was “trust in generosity”: assume the best of people until you have evidence to the contrary. Not reading into comments that landed sideways helped me avoid many a hurt feeling where, I’m sure, none were intended. 

In the workplace, it helped me always land on the side of supporting employees to get the job done. Because a manager who can’t help their employee succeed is, by my definition, unsuccessful themselves.

Trusting in generosity about your employee may take many forms. You might consider:

  • Whether a missed deadline represents a misplaced priority—that they attended to one fire at the expense of another, or gave a project more time than they could afford to make it excellent.
  • Whether a no-show, no-call was the best of a set of poor options.
  • Whether an underwhelming deliverable reflected a misplaced fear of letting you down—that the employee was unclear whether the greater sin was showing inadequacy or asking for help.
  • Whether the botched outcome is an opportunity to improve your training, QA, or resource allocation.

So in the event an employee underperforms, misses a deadline, or otherwise doesn’t show the professional behavior you’d like to see, I’d encourage you to take a moment to reflect on whether you’ve been offering meaningful positive reinforcement.

  • Have you been regularly and volubly recognizing the quality performance you expect? 
  • Are you consistent in your feedback and judicious in your praise? 
  • Have you been expressing yourself in multiple modalities—in one-on-ones, in department and company meetings, in opportunities and rewards, and in writing? 
  • And have you been using negative reinforcement, by avoiding unnecessary and unhelpful criticism and critique?

As you’re doing this self-reflection, remember to show some compassion to yourself. Uncertainty about upcoming deadlines, budgetary pressures, and departmental KPIs take their toll. Consider ways to celebrate your successes and achievements. Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of others on your leadership team. 

Looking for a little perspective on management, leadership, or employee recognition? 

Let’s chat.

I’d be happy to discuss some tactics when compassionate management has proved successful—in workplaces as varied as an art museum, marketing agency, and security consulting firm—or exchange Chewy.com recommendations.