Positive Reinforcement to Improve an Individual’s Behavior!

Positive Reinforcement to Improve an Individual’s Behavior!

According to Patricia Neal, “A strong positive mental attitude will create more miracles than any wonder drug.” So, in this context, the formative years of an individual have a reflective effect on his or her mental attitude and behavior. This is a widely-known and accepted fact. For example, an individual who has spent his childhood in a violent or aggressive environment will have an aggressive or violent streak to his personality. On other hand, individuals who belong to a quiet, peaceful, and secure environment turn out to be confident, secure, and balanced adults.

Positive reinforcement is the process whereby desirable behavior is encouraged by presenting a reward at the time of occurrence of such behavior. Positive reinforcement is a tried and tested method in what is known in psychology as ‘operant’ conditioning. It is widely studied and used in behavior analysis.

For example, when you acclaim an employee for doing a job effectively, you increase the likelihood of him/her doing that job well even in the future.

Some of the advantages of using positive reinforcement are:

  • It can be successfully used to increase the frequency of a wide range of behaviors (positive and negative).
  • It can be used to produce new behaviors.
  • It can be effectively used in the classroom to help students identify their strengths and put them to optimum use to accomplish the tasks allotted to them.

Now, let’s look at some of the major factors of positive reinforcement.

Positive Communication

Positive communication is an essential tool of positive reinforcement. As it builds a curious attitude when communicating with others, it lets the other person know you are interested in what they are saying. Additionally, it helps build self-esteem which, in turn, is the basis of self-confidence and individuality. At this point, it may be useful to know that an individual’s self-confidence is greatly influenced by the quality of interactions and the kind of relationships they share at home and in the workplace.

For example, consider a scenario between two employees that describes their communication level:

Richie is a receptionist at a private company, and Adams is her superior. The weekly reports made by Richie are really help Adams.

Now, let’s see how Adams communicates with Richie:

  1. Thanks, Richie for the report.
  2. Richie, this is fantastic work. I would really like to appreciate for your intelligent work.


Motivation is yet another important factor that highly impacts the use of positive reinforcement. It has the power to affect all aspects of life. Being positively motivated aids the growth, success, and overall well-being of a person. Moreover, it can also be successfully used for motivating other people.

For example, consider a scenario which differentiates the motivation levels of Louis:

Louis is a HR manager and John is an executive employee who is usually very punctual. Unfortunately, one fine morning, John oversleeps and arrives late to work by half an hour.

Now, let’s see both the motivating and demotivating responses of Louis toward John:

  1. John, your duty is to be on time at the office. It is unacceptable that you were late to work today.
  2. John, I really commend that you are usually very punctual, however, you were late to work today which caused some problems around the office. So, please don’t be late again.


Timing is critical to achieve the best results using positive reinforcement. The desired behavior needs to be rewarded immediately. A delay in rewarding the positive behavior will have no effect in reinforcing the desirable behavior since the time gap between the desirable behavior and recognition of the same can make or break the behavior.

For example, you can praise your employees for their excellent teamwork as soon as the project is completed.


Consistency is of the utmost importance. A particular behavior which may be considered positive or desirable and which has been rewarded, should stay in that category. Something that is considered “good” behavior today, should not be labeled otherwise tomorrow. Such inconsistencies can be counterproductive, lead to confusion in the employee’s mind and indecisiveness about acceptable behavior in future.

For example, every employee should maintain constant behavior and attitude in the workplace.

When thinking about positive reinforcement, always remember that the end result is to increase the behavior. If implemented properly, positive reinforcement is a simple technique that can help you change an individual’s behavior – usually, very quickly.

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  • C.Dhanlakshhmi

    Yes indeed it does because every individual has certain vibration around them and it changes as per individual behaviour if it is positive it works for you and if it is negative it works against you and it is tried and tested method

  • I’m a big fan of Herzberg’s model regarding motivation. He calls this “KITA from the front.” The fans of operant conditioning often fail to mention that if the reward is taken away, the behavior continues … but only for a while. So if you start on this, you must do it always and forever.

    A quote from one of my students who was discussing his employer’s practice of giving teams customized t-shirts as a reward for meeting a major milestone: “I have 269 t-shirts. I don’t need another t-shirt. I don’t really want another t-shirt. But boy do I get pi**ed off if I don’t get one!”

  • There’s something about positive re-inforcement that strikes me as being manipulative. I feel true motivation must come from within the person themselves, and be free of the thought of any reward.

  • This was summed up very neatly by Goethe:

    “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.”

    Doesn’t require any reward, just to encourage positive behaviour. I myself find that a simple “well done” will suffice…

  • David Gabor

    This is an interesting question, Ayesha. Sarah, your input is very valuable.

    I am a believer that positive reinforcement is important for nearly all people. It can be a valuable coaching tool in the workplace. However, it is also important to make people aware of mistakes and the importance of taking ownership of their mistakes.

    It has been my experience that the majority of people want to do well on the job. They want to be respected and want to feel that they are an important part of the team. To that end, positive reinforcement encourages them to perform at a high level and to look forward to their work. On the other hand, it is critical that this tool is used in conjunction with other coaching tools. Otherwise, the employee will have an inflated impression of herself and that becomes problematic.

    One illustration is the following conversation:

    HR Manager: What can I do for you today?
    Supervisor: I want to term Dudley Do Wrong
    HR: Why?
    Supervisor: He has been chronically late and refuses to take on new responsibilities
    HR: Have you counseled him about this?
    Supervisor: No
    HR: Why not?
    Supervisor: Well, I don’t like confrontation. I am uncomfortable with negative interaction. I did complement Dudley for some good work that he did on some projects, however.
    HR: Well, do you at least have memos on time and attendance issues?
    Supervisor: No, I told you, I don’t like negative interaction.

    This conversation is realized far too often in the workplace. You can imagine the implications if Dudley is terminated from his position and falls into a protected class.

  • Sarah Babineau

    Absolutely. I have been very successful in helping struggling employees by giving them a combination of tough love and positive reinforcement. My approach has been to let them know in no uncertain terms that their performance is unacceptable, but then to support them in changing it.

    In one case in particular, (at an older company) I “inhereted” a two year employee who was constantly below standards and was tasked with writing him up (before I even got the chance to assess or work with his performance) and starting the paperwork to terminate if he didn’t change.

    I was peeved that I didn’t get a chance to help him before I had to start the termination process, so I wrote a bulleted list of things he needed to improve in the next 6 weeks. I brought him into the office and said, I was told this had to be in writing, so here it is. If these issues are not addressed by XX date, this is exactly what the formal write up will look like. Now let me help you set up a framework where you can meet these goals. I sat with him, reviewed his process, and told him how he should try changing it.

    I checked in with him everyday, and told him he was doing very well (because he was). Then I continued to help him evolve him process, and asked how it was going at the end of each day. He came to trust me and had a greater buy in to the changes I was suggesting.

    At the end of the 6 weeks, he had met all of his goals. So I used the write up as an opportuinty to say he met his goals and told him that was going in his file instead of PIP paperwork. Then I gave him another set of goals and 6 more weeks. I checked in with him twice a week, and he met those goals as well.

    When it was time to do his performance review that year, I gave him a small raise for imrpoving his performance so drastically. He teared up, and said he has never received a raise before, and had never felt so supported in his job. It was a real success story and I was glad to have helped him figure out how to work within a structure that helped him be successful.

    True, David. No point in giving positive feedback if it’s the only thing you’re comfortable doing. Everything has to be honest and true and quantifiable. Negative and positive feedback.

    So I guess another answer to your question, Ayesha, is: No kind of feedback is helpful in changing behavior if it’s not quantified or honest.

    Postscript: I was laid off from that company in 2008. He’s still there today! :o)

  • Sharon Bingert

    Dear Ayesha,

    I agree with you totally that “Positive Reinforcement CAN affect an individuals behavior”. Quite a while ago, I taught for 3 semesters at the Adult Education School in my community a “WordPerfect Course”. I had 21 Adults take the course. One particular lady was “terrified to touch the computer”. She only thought it was going to “blow up”, if she touched a key. I changed her behavior by providing “positive feedback” and telling her that it would NOT explode and giving her that extra little bit of confidence that she so greatly needed. The end result, was that the woman finished the course with “great success” and at the same time, felt better about herself and was NOT afraid anymore.

    Hope this helps….. Sharon

  • Positive reinforcement and behavioral conditioning theory has great benefit and truth to it, and is not entirely accurate given newer knowledge of how humans are motivated. Also, understanding the formation of neural networks helps refine how we use reinforcement. There are two major cautions with using positive reinforcement.
    1. While the target behavior may be easy to identify and reward, there are often other behaviors or situational habits that are also inadvertently reinforced, thus contributing to unintended consequences down the road. And, even when a target behavior is identified the questions remains, “what will be the most potent reward for this individual?” Without in-depth understanding of individual differences and contextual factors, positive reinforcement can backfire.
    2. Humans will always, always, always, always, attempt to get their core psychological needs met. If they can’t get them met in positive ways, they will get those same needs met in negative ways. Proactively offering a person’s healthy psychological needs is distinctly different, and can be more effective than positive reinforcement. For more, here are a couple resources

  • Mary-Jane

    In her book ‘Self Theories’ (2000), C. S. Dweck outlines the respective influences on learning of holding what she terms either an ‘entity’ or ‘incremental’ theory of self and intelligence. Dweck notes the negative effects on children’s sense of self of responsible adults holding too limited a view of what constitutes self-esteem.
    For example, believing that positive reinforcement and praise automatically boosts self-esteem, and holding self-esteem to be a prerequisite to advancement, adults lie to children, puff them up, boost their egos and disguise or elide intimations of failure. This is done with the best possible intentions, but has the effect of encouraging children to develop an expectation of entitlement that leads to bitterness and collapse when it is not delivered on in their subsequent experience of the world.
    On the basis of her research results, Dweck calls for an explicitly incremental and honest approach to teaching and learning, engaging with students in realistic dialogue and providing them with a straightforward appraisal of their achievement.

  • Francois

    The carrot and the stick… Yes, positive reinforcement does work, but not all the time. Humans are wonderfully complex and that x factor will always cause exceptions to the rule and disprove theories.

    The carrot or stick activates one of the traits linked to motivation – whether we prefer to be motivated ‘towards’ goals, or ‘away from’ problems. So positive reinforcement may have limited effectiveness with people with an away-from prefernce. Then there is a small % of the population who prefer to mismatch everything and neither the carrot nor stick would work. Also, when complex cognitive learning or work must be mastered the monetary carrot fails…

    I find surprise to be a much more effective motivator – not linked to achievement of any specific objective. Furthermore, social recognition is much more effective than material reward, confirmation of values and beliefs more effective than social reward… which kind of turns Maslow upside down.

    Reading the comments of others here also reminds me of one of the principles of coaching and that is to supply both support (the positive reinforcement) and challenge (stretch – new goals, reality checks, problems scenarios.)

    If you are interested in learning to incorporate these ideas into e-Learning, read up on the work Gregory Bateson did on training dolphins, and the work done by Shelle Rose Charvet on motivation.

    All of the best with making your e-Learning even more effective!

  • From my early life I lived in village Teligaty of our district Khulna.My friend circle were cow boy and lower class of society.I spend my boy hood with them. No one of them studied.Their behavior were not good.They quarreled with each other. Some time they thieve hen, fruit etc.All of them were addicted various way.When I was class nine my father sifted me in Khulna town.After that, some of classmate came from highly educated family.Two of them were my good friend. After that I studied with them.And I changed my behavior.

  • Didier

    Let’s put the psycho lingua aside, and be factual about it : yes it does wonders.

    However it also depends on how genuine is the praise -do not make things up because you read it in your Manager’s Guide!- and I think it does not necessarily work in the long term if concrete rewards do not come up, whether it’s a promotion, a wage increase etc…

    Positive reinforcement is not a technique that works on its own either. It has to be combined with everything else in the leader’s “toolbox”. ie, encourage behaviors you want to see, blast those you don’t.
    In a company like in any other human organization, 10% of the people are part of the problem, 10% are part of the solution. Everyone in between will lean towards the most rewarding behaviour:

    – Absent or coward management, the bad behaviours are not dealt with, while the good ones are not rewarded >>> your 80% followers will lean towards the bad behaviour based on “The hard workers are not better treated anyway” analysis.

    – Management involved, rewarding / promoting / encouraging good behaviors AND courageously dealing with the 10% tail-end : the 80% will follow the trend too, because it makes their life easier to replicate the good behaviors.

    And yes, I encountered and generated this a few times in my career. The most rewarding scenario is when you actually convince the “bad apple” that he’s got talent and is just behaving like an idiot. If you happen to be the only one believing in him (his boss on top of that!), you might manage to “flick the internal switch”.
    Happened to me 3 or 4 times in 20 years… the person went from total pain in the butt (absenteism, lousy work, low motivation) to top employee…. to management and today Senior Management !

    Talk about making a difference in someone’s life ! The most gratifying experience ever as a boss…

  • David Robinson

    Yes, I agree that positive reinforcement affects behavior, in a positive way. However, the positive reinforcement must be genuine and be about an accomplishment of substance. It’s counter productive if the praise is not deserved as most of us know when we’ve applied ourselves and form a negative opinion about the person making the compliment if it’s not deserved. Also, it’s better if there are high standards (not unreachable, but high) so that reaching the established goal, that was measurable, is the real achievement – followed by the praise. It’s the cherry on the cake.

    Over the many years of management, I’ve seen positive reinforcement employed many times successfully. In some cases, it was very well received and a great motivator almost immediately. In most cases, if it was a change of behavior by the manager, it was viewed skeptically (and in many cases it wasn’t genuine so skepticism was appropriate). For positive reinforcement to work, what I found to be a fundamental component was belief in the character of the person making the compliment. The more respected that person, the more genuine the compliment is perceived which creates the most impact. Having experienced this personally, I’ve then seen the strong correlation to employees working harder to earn additional and well deserved compliments.

    I note again, that if the compliment is not genuine or fails to be consistent with future achievements, then this strategy backfires as employees see this as a disingenuous attempt to motivate for more output.

  • Didier

    I beg to differ here. Allow me to bring some nuance to that.

    Positive reinforcement may be related to regular, mundane tasks that nobody seems to have noticed before. In the context of my previous comment, it would be when you take over a team that has had little leadership for awhile, and people have been left astray (The French football team for instance…. but I digress… ;o)).

    In that context, what I like doing is what I call “catch them doing the right thing”… Congratulate and thank an employee for what he’s just done, even if it’s part of his regular work, because positive feedback has never happened before to him.

    You are the new manager on board and you start showing that you notice, and you have already won a battle in turning around the operation.

    Paris, France

  • Kate Hammond

    Related to this question is the fact that on performance appraisals, developmental objectives tend to be about things we are going to do right which we do wrong at the moment rather than about doing more of the things we are doing right. This seems to go against the positive reinforcement model in that it puts all the concentration on the ‘wrongs’ rather than the ‘rights’ – and this is going on in environments which think that they put most emphasis on the carrot approach

  • Didier

    From my experience, any organization made of human beings has 10% of its people who are part of the problem, 10% who are part of the solution,and the rest that will follow the path of least resistance or greatest reward.
    When you manage to work on the 10% of people part of the solution and you make them the example to follow, you realize that:

    A)The 80% will lean towards the behaviours strongly encouraged by management
    B)The 10% problem people will make the minimum effort not to be bothered (so technically they will improve) or they will leave the organization altogether at the first opportunity.

    When you reach that point as a manager, you have started to build a culture of excellence and continuous improvement.

  • Just to clarify – positive reinforcement does not have to be by way of a ‘reward’ in the typical sense – it can be by allowing more freedom in the way one does his or her job. It can be allowing more input into decision-making; it can be providing opportunities to allow a person to take on some new leadership responsibilities. There are some jobs in which the reinforcement may be by way of dollars and cents; but that is where I think there is some confusion around what is meant by positive reinforcement. Daniel Pink’s video (thanks Doug) speaks to why motivation through the typical reward systems don’t always bring about the results we had hoped for. Freedom of choice in the way one performs his or her duties can also be viewed as positive reinforcement. I recently had the opportunity to read some of Ricardo Semler’s views on employee-centric management and I believe that he was far ahead of his time in terms of where the current management philosophy is in terms of positive reinforcement. If you’re not familiar with him, do a google search.

    Here is a very simple view (in my opinion) of how positive reinforcement can work…let’s say that I have just spent two days in my garden weeding the flower bed and planting new plants. A neighbour comes by and sees me working in the yard and says, “Wow! I love what you’ve done to the garden…it looks beautiful.” All of that hard work suddenly feels very rewarding indeed. Yes, you derive personal satisfaction from the work you have done, but to have someone else recognize and compliment you on your hard work makes you want to keep it up. I know that is a very simple illustration but I believe that we can do the same thing in our workplaces.

    The thing is, we must be sincere. If not, it takes away from the value that positive reinforcement can provide.

    I also agree with David Gabor’s point with respect to conflict avoidance. There are situations in which corrective actions and hard discussions must take place but in terms of whether or not positive reinforcement works, I say yes. I’ve used it myself and had excellent results from those who worked for me. I didn’t skirt issues that needed to be addressed though…they too were part of managing a team.

  • Didier

    Allow me to differ Kellie… When you mention more responsibilities or more freedom, you’ve already stepped into the “reward” area.
    Positive reinforcement, as far as I understand it and I think, as far as Asma meant it up above, is a verbal, spontaneous (well, more or less) manner of expressing one’s satisfaction towards someone else’s performance, however mundane it might be.

    The reward will confirm the PR, by offering a concrete outcome (which you described) to the PR.

    In other words, PR may work for a while on its own, butyou have to figure out how to quickly translate your praise into something more tangible for your employee.

  • I would also argue, Asma, that negative reinforcement plays a major role in changing behavior and indeed can often be more instrumental in behavior change than positive inducements or rewards. The psychology behind this is that we are neuro-physiologically “wired” to be more attentive to threats than rewards. But the larger issue is that while either positive or negative inducements can quickly change behavior if the factors are strong enough and quick enough, a change in ATTITUDE is something quite different. While negative behaviors can indeed be changed, negative attitudes are far more entrenched and are often rooted in a long history of experience, learning, and cultural influences. A sexist or racist jerk at work may change their behavior because of a fear of getting fired. But their attitude may remain the same. Sometimes the only way to eliminate undesirable attitudes is to remove the individual.

  • I believe that there is an onus of responsibility on the person ‘bestowing’ the positive reinforcement; they can use a good model of +ve reinforcement, such as the 3’C’s (consistent, contingent and copious) which has produced good results, but the person can also adjust their own expectations (a la Pygmalion effect), and observe some current neuroscience info about mirror neurons and their role in motivation. The biggest risk with +ve reinforcement, in my opinion, is appearing manipulative and transparent. Perhaps, this type of behaviourist strategy is best reserved for basic, imitative skill transfer?

  • Didier

    I might be oversimplifying here, but my angle is that there are two types of scenarii for +R :

    – Efficent team, high achievers, good morale…. +R must be limited to those exceptional circumstances (ABCD for instance… Above and Beyond the Call of Duty) and accomplishments. Otherwise it would sound totally phoney.

    – Crisis situation, history of poor management implication and courage, low morale etc…. In this case even basic performance can be emphazised by +R, as a way to demontrate genuine care for the team and its people (key word: genuine!)

  • Positive reinforcement goes way back for me to when I first had to lead a platoon in the Army. Then when I had children I found myself engrossed in book like “Positive Discipline for Children.” I even attended a seminar in Charlotte with my husband go give our marriage a boost about positive communication. In the business world, positive reinforcement verses demanding performance gets much better results AND is a lot less stressful. My favorite activity on this subject is to “catch” my kids doing things and saying a big “I appreciate you so much!”

  • Didier

    Exactly. As I mentioned above, “catch them doing the right thing”.

  • Hi Didier
    I agree with you that more responsibilities and more freedom are indeed rewards – the point I was trying to make is that there are different types of positive reinforcement that may be utilized. I think that what you say about catching them doing the right thing is absolutely right; but I think to be meaningful to the recipient, it must be something the recipient values. There are a lot of organizations that set up rewards programs that I’ve heard employees scoff at and have also seen the entitlement attitude raise.

    The point I guess I was trying to make is that positive reinforcement can definitely work if, as Ruth mentioned as well…it is consistent and as others have mentioned…sincere.

    To Dr. Eli’s point; there are times when attitudes need to be adjusted by using negative inducements. Someone else mentioned a ‘manager’s toolbox’ and I think that is a good analogy. Inidividuals are just that – there is no one size fits all! Some people, unfortunately, understand disciplinary action and that’s more likely going to work for them than positive reinforcement – without the fear factor – they see no need to comply.

    Last, but not least; positive reinforcement by itself does not hold people accountable and while I definitely believe it is extremely valuable in motivation, it would be most inappropriate to use in circumstances that warrant corrective actions – and doing nothing at all when corrective actions should be applied – destroys any positive reinforcment given since you are in essence conding poor behavious by virtue of the fact that you are afraid to deal with them.

    Be fair, be consistent, be sincere and I believe as well…be specific. Nice job…or alternately…don’t do that again doesn’t cut it!

  • Sandi

    Positive reinforcement handsdown wins. I have always used positive reinforcement with my co-workers especially when they go out of their way at work to help someone else or just bake some brownies for the Mail Room (who usually go un-noticed and under appreciated). I use positive reinforcement with my husband as well (no guilt here) and he responds so well to it. Having happy people to work with is much better than working with those who are not. Although, there are some who just don’t react to positive reinforcement and are just deep down unhappy people. Thus positive reinforcement doesn’t help everyone. PS I’m still baking brownies.

  • People welcome positive feedback, support and words of encouragement. However, feedback is generally associated with criticisms and assessing what went wrong, focused on past — not the future

    Motivational leaders always look forward and use Marshall Goldsmith’s ‘FeedForward’ thinking which focuses on what was successful, NOT what went wrong

    How? Feedback sessions have a tendency to focus on ‘what went wrong’ and the past. FeedForward meetings are collaborative and explore ‘what went right’, ‘what was learned’ and ‘how to make it even better’ going forward.

    It’s a self-directed approach allowing people to rethink the situation and events, uncover knowledge and learning to determine what they can do to improve. The following are sample questions to rethink, uncover, explore and learn:
    ‘Knowledge and Learning’ Questions:

    * ‘What do you feel was the most important thing you learned?’
    * ‘You’re biggest insight and success this week was….?
    * ‘What did you learn about……………?’
    * ‘What could you do to make it even better?’

    Results. The leader offers constant follow-ups, support, encouragement, focusing on the future and holding staff accountable for results. When FeedForward is delivered in a constructive and positive way, it motivates and helps individuals improve their attitude and future performance.

  • Positive feedback is an interesting topic, and its effectiveness depends on the sincerity and plausibility of the provider.

    How many times during performance reviews have I been on the receiving end of the ‘bath tub’ or the ‘**** sandwich’ (as we called it in the Army).

    Inspiration removes the requirement for motivation and the responsibility for inspiration in the workplace lies with the leadership team; therefore, spend your time (as the leader) connecting your team to their own passions, linking them to the organisation’s values and empower them to dream big.

    The benefits for the organisation of passionate, inspired and empowered workers are well-documented; however, the primary result of engaged employees is an increased level of productivity and a reduced requirement for employee manipulation through (often poorly provided) positive reinforcement.

  • Mr. Tjambiru V John

    I believe that overall every person need a positive reinforcement that will motivate him or her to understand that he/she not alone, but there is person who can see what you are doing. Yes you as manager you need to motivate follower colleagues to earn the interest in the works that they are doing, everybody need a positive reinforcement that will encourage you to have a go ahead with your work.