How to Earn the Loyalty of Enthusiastic and Committed Employees:

Reinforcement Theory and Employee Retention

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If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail – and you pound away. If your only tool is a hammer, then everything you see needs pounding. Too many managers in the service sector are “pounders” as the only nail they see is hiring more and faster. When employee turnover is too high, they pound it, hoping to get new employees through a revolving door faster than existing employees can exit it. There’s a place in the effective management of service employees for hammering on staffing: an aggressive approach to getting quality applicants in the door is the first step toward taking care of your customers.

But it’s just one of the nails to pound. Employee retention is an equally important nail to pound as it involves answering the question of how to engage, keep, and cultivate employees as ambassadors for your enterprise. Over the years, I have seen lots of tactics aimed at addressing this challenge. Some of them are good, but even the good ones mostly miss the mark in terms of maximizing employee retention. There’s a simple fix: stop mindlessly approaching retention; that is, jumping on the latest fad in lieu of working with a proven strategy. Motivation theory, and specifically reinforcement theory, is a proven and crayon-simple tool you can use to build a team that performs, fits your culture, and stays.

Reinforcement Theory in a Nutshell

Reinforcement theory – fathered by the work of the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner – is one of the oldest theories of motivation and, therefore, one of the best understood. It provides a way of understanding why people do what they do. For this reason alone, it’s one of the more useful tools in any leader’s toolbox. Briefly put, the theory states that behavior is a function of its consequences. Change the consequences and you change the behavior – or so the theory goes.

Combined with other theories such as those that address core human needs1, it provides keen insights to important enterprise processes such as recognition, incentive compensation, and building employee retention. Generally speaking, there are four primary approaches to reinforcement theory; namely, (1) positive reinforcement, (2) negative reinforcement, (3) positive punishment, and (4) negative punishment. However, only two of these approaches are effective in a work environment where great employees are best thought of as “volunteers” in the enterprise’s success.

A Bit More Theory

People tend to repeat the behaviors that result in what they see as positive outcomes and to avoid behaviors that result in what they see as unpleasant outcomes. This is the essence of the Law of Effect, and while there is a bit of a “Duh” factor to the statement of the law, its importance to your effectiveness as a leader cannot be overstated. It is most useful in not only structuring positive consequences (“Thanks for answering that customer’s question in such a positive way.”) but in trying to understand employee behavior that seems contrary to the best interests of the employee (“What?! Why are you late again?”).

What the leader has to understand is not only the “why” of the positive behavior but the “why” of the negative behavior. If the leader looked deeper into the behavior, what he or she might discover is that being late is positive in that the employee has “more time to himself” and nothing negative happens other than the leader momentarily expressing dissatisfaction. For the employee, that may well be an “I win, you lose” scenario. This is where reinforcement theory can provide a strategy for improving performance.

Reinforcement Strategies

The four strategies for reinforcing behavior: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment, work something like the picture shown in Figure 1.

Both positive and negative reinforcement are two methods for increasing desired behaviors. In a nutshell, positive reinforcement gives more of what employees want and negative reinforcement gives less of what employees don’t want. In the instance of negative reinforcement, it’s important to remember that reinforcement does not mean “bad” stuff; instead, it means only the removal of something the employee does not value. Let’s see what that might look like when applied to our chronically late employee.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement Graph

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