Designing Employee Reinforcement
Timing may not be everything in employee motivation, but it's a big piece of the puzzle
By John Jack
April 5, 2011
The economic dilemma we’re facing today has tentacles that reach into every organization, both public and private. Even the United States Postal Service is in trouble. A recent Associated Press article reported “Post office red ink hits $8.5 billion,” despite cuts of 100,000 jobs, efforts to improve productivity, and ever-higher stamp prices.
Too many payrolls were out of line with revenues, as were benefits and entitlements. So both government agencies and companies overhauled themselves and released people.
The days of automatic raises and benefits are over, at least for the foreseeable future. And, predictably, this has prompted a sharp decline in employee satisfaction, according to Towers Watson Consulting, which also pointed out that many dissatisfied workers are just “staying on” until the job market improves—not a recipe for productivity or morale.
We need to adjust our thinking about how we compensate and motivate our workforces. In short, we need to inspire our people in ways that are both effective and affordable.
A good way to start is to think less about rewarding results and more about reinforcement of positive behaviors required to produce the results. This is a simple and effective methodology that, when deployed properly, can create a positive and enthusiastic work environment.
The science behind behavioral reinforcement was pioneered by B. F. Skinner, a Harvard professor who studied the ways in which the reinforcement (rewarding) of behaviors can shape future behaviors. He learned that when behaviors are reinforced, they tend to be repeated and grow stronger. Behaviors that aren’t reinforced in one way or another generally are not repeated.
Skinner described four reinforcement schedules. Two are based on time, and two are predicated on the number of times a behavior occurs.
This is the most commonly used reinforcement schedule because it’s the easiest to use. Think of paychecks, for example. They’re generated on a regular, or fixed, interval of time. This makes sense, as people need to know when they will get paid.
But there’s a negative side to fixed-interval reinforcement in that it tends to become expected and generates little excitement or enthusiasm. In fact, this is the least effective reinforcement schedule, in terms of changing or improving behaviors. Moreover, behaviors elicited on a fixed-interval basis tend to extinguish when the reinforcement is withdrawn.
Here, behaviors are reinforced on a variable, as opposed to fixed-interval, basis. The period of time required to earn the reinforcement varies and is not announced in advance. You might start with once a week, then once every two or three weeks, then back to once a week, and so on. An appropriate application of this would be the reinforcement of perfect attendance. The reinforcement might be the announcement of a casual clothes day or an extra half-day of vacation for those who don’t miss work for a specified (and unannounced) period of time.
Since the reinforcement arrives at unpredictable times, it creates a sense of surprise and suspense. This approach is considerably less costly than a fixed-interval schedule, and the behaviors are less likely to extinguish when the reinforcement is discontinued (without notice).
This is similar to the fixed-interval approach but is based on a fixed number of times a behavior occurs, rather than on when it happens. Piece rates are typical of fixed-ratio reinforcement. A worker is paid based on how many items he or she produces, or how many sales are made.
Once the ratio of behaviors to rewards is established, it seldom or never changes. It lacks the intrigue of variable reinforcement, but it can be effective as a form of incentive.
Here, a desired behavior is reinforced after a variable, or unfixed, number of responses has occurred. This is a powerful driver of behaviors, one that prompts salespeople to make call after call, as they never know when a call will result in a sale.
Perhaps the best example of variable ratio reinforcement is a slot machine. One never knows how many times the handle must be pulled before a reward is dispensed. And, in this case, the reward—a jackpot—is variable, as well, combining both fixed and variable-ratio schedules. This is by far the most effective means of behavior reinforcement and can even become addictive, as we’ve seen in those who become hooked on gambling.
Both variable ratio and variable interval schedules require time and repetition to become effective because individuals need to understand how their actions will affect the potential rewards.
In addition to choosing the appropriate schedule of reinforcement, it’s also important to select appropriate reinforcers—they must be suited to the demographics of the audience—and the type and degree of difficulty of the behaviors required to trigger them. A simple “thank you for doing a great job” is always appropriate. A reserved parking spot is a nice option in some situations, and a random chance of earning a trip to a resort might be appropriate in others. Desk items—symbols of achievement—are inexpensive.
If the targeted behavior is unusually difficult or time-consuming, such as making a large sale, the reinforcement needs to be substantial in nature, valuable, and highly desired. But remember that, unlike bonuses or incentives, which are announced well in advance, the most effective forms of reinforcement are spontaneous and unannounced. They don’t set precedents and can be discontinued or changed without notice.
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