The reinforcement approach to employee motivation sidesteps the issues of employee needs and thinking processes described in the content and process theories. Reinforcement theory simply looks at the relationship between behavior and its consequences. It focuses on changing or modifying employees’ on-the-job behavior through the appropriate use of immediate rewards and punishments.
1. REINFORCEMENT TOOLS
Behavior modification is the name given to the set of techniques by which reinforcement theory is used to modify human behavior.40 The basic assumption underlying behavior modi- fication is the law of effect, which states that behavior that is positively reinforced tends to be repeated, and behavior that is not reinforced tends not to be repeated. Reinforcement is defined as anything that causes a certain behavior to be repeated or inhibited. The four reinforcement tools are positive reinforce-ment, avoidance learning, punishment, and extinction. Each type of reinforce- ment is a consequence of either a pleasant or unpleasant event being applied or with- drawn following a person’s behavior. The four types of reinforcement are summa- rized in Exhibit 12.6.
Positive Reinforcement. Posi- tive reinforcement is the administration of a pleasant and rewarding consequence fol- lowing a desired behavior. A good example of positive reinforcement is immediate praise for an employee who arrives on time or does a little extra work. The pleasant consequence will increase the likelihood of the excellent work behavior occurring again. Studies have shown that positive reinforce- ment does help to improve performance. In addition, nonfinancial reinforcements such as positive feedback, social recognition, and attention are just as effective as financial incentives.41 Indeed, many people consider factors other than money to be more important. Nelson Motivation Inc. con-ducted a survey of 750 employees across various industries to assess the value they placed on various rewards. Cash and other monetary awards came in dead last. The most valued rewards involved praise and manager support and involvement.42
Avoidance Learning. Avoidance learning is the removal of an unpleasant conse- quence following a desired behavior. Avoidance learning is sometimes called negative reinforcement. Employees learn to do the right thing by avoiding unpleasant situations.
Avoidance learning occurs when a supervisor stops criticizing or reprimanding an em-ployee after the incorrect behavior has stopped.
Punishment. Punishment is the imposition of unpleasant outcomes on an employee. Punishment typically occurs following undesirable behavior. For example, a supervisor may berate an employee for performing a task incorrectly. The supervisor expects that the nega- tive outcome will serve as a punishment and reduce the likelihood of the behavior recur- ring. The use of punishment in organizations is controversial and often criticized because it fails to indicate the correct behavior. However, almost all managers report that they find it necessary to occasionally impose forms of punishment ranging from verbal reprimands to employee suspensions or firings.43
Extinction. Extinction is the withdrawal of a positive reward. Whereas with punish- ment, the supervisor imposes an unpleasant outcome such as a reprimand, extinction in- volves withholding pay raises, bonuses, praise, or other positive outcomes. The idea is that behavior that is not positively reinforced will be less likely to occur in the future. For exam- ple, if a perpetually tardy employee fails to receive praise and pay raises, he or she will begin to realize that the behavior is not producing desired outcomes. The behavior will gradually disappear if it is continually not reinforced.
Executives can use aspects of reinforcement theory to shape employees’ behavior. Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40 Company, which makes the popular lubricant used for everything from loosening bolts to removing scuff marks from floors, wanted to encourage people to talk about their failures so the company could learn from them. He offered prizes to anyone who would e-mail and share their “learning moments,” and each respondent would have the chance to win an all-expenses paid vacation. The positive reinforcement, combined with the company’s “blame-free” policy, motivated people to share ideas that have helped WD-40 keep learning and growing.44
2. SCHEDULES OF REINFORCEMENT
A great deal of research into reinforcement theory suggests that the timing of reinforce- ment has an impact on how quickly employees learn and respond with the desired behav- ior. Schedules of reinforcement pertain to the frequency with which and intervals over which reinforcement occurs. A reinforcement schedule can be selected to have maximum impact on employees’ job behavior. Five basic types of reinforcement schedules include continuous and four types of partial reinforcement.
Continuous Reinforcement. With a continuous reinforcement sched- ule, every occurrence of the desired behavior is reinforced. This schedule can be espe- cially effective in the early stages of learning new types of behavior because every attempt has a pleasant consequence. Some companies use a continuous reinforcement schedule by offering people cash, game tokens, or points that can be redeemed for prizes each time they perform the desired behavior. LDF Sales & Distributing tried a program called “The Snowfly Slots,” developed by management professor Brooks Mitchell, to cut inven- tory losses. Workers received tokens each time they double-checked the quantity of a shipment. Since it started using Snowfly, the company saved $31,000 a year when inventory losses fell 50 percent. Many companies are developing continuous reinforce- ment programs so that employees make a clear connection between their behavior and the desired reward.45
Partial Reinforcement. However, in the real world of organizations, it is often impossible to reinforce every correct behavior. With a partial reinforcement schedule, the reinforcement is administered only after some occurrences of the correct behavior.
The schedules of reinforcement are illustrated in Exhibit 12.7. Continuous reinforce- ment is most effective for establishing new learning, but behavior is vulnerable to extinc- tion. Partial reinforcement schedules are more effective for maintaining behavior over extended time periods. The most powerful is the variable-ratio schedule because employee behavior will persist for a long time due to the random administration of reinforcement only after a long interval.46
Reinforcement also works at such organizations as Campbell Soup Co., Emery Air Freight, Emerald Packaging, Michigan Bell, and PSS World Medical because managers reward the desired behaviors. They tell employees what they can do to receive rewards, tell them what they are doing wrong, distribute rewards equitably, tailor rewards to behaviors, and keep in mind that failure to reward deserving behavior has an equally powerful impact on employees.
Reward and punishment motivational practices dominate organizations. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 84 percent of all companies in the United States offer some type of monetary or nonmonetary reward system, and 69 percent offer incentive pay, such as bonuses, based on an employee’s performance.47 However, in other studies, more than 80 percent of employers with incentive programs have reported that their programs are only somewhat successful or not working at all.48 Despite the testimo- nies of organizations that enjoy successful incentive programs, criticism of these “carrot- and-stick” methods is growing, as discussed in the Spotlight on Skills box.
Source: Daft Richard L., Marcic Dorothy (2009), Understanding Management, South-Western College Pub; 8th edition.