Reinforcement Perspective on Motivation

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.


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


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.

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