How to Earn the Loyalty of Enthusiastic and Committed Employees:

Reinforcement Theory and Employee Retention

coworkers giving one another a high five

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. In our analogy, too many managers, especially managers of frontline and early career employees, see hiring as their only tool. When employee turnover is too high, they take their hammer and focus on hiring better and faster, hoping to get new employees through a revolving door faster than existing employees can exit it. There’s a place in the effective management employees for hammering on staffing: an aggressive approach to getting quality applicants in the door is the first step toward taking care of your team, customers, and stakeholders.

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, inspire, 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 excellent, some 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. The science of motivation, 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: a recipe for building diverse and inclusive teams.

Reinforcement theory – fathered by the work of the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner – is one of the oldest theories of motivation and, therefore, has been tested and used in multitude of business contexts. It provides a way of understanding why people do what they do. For this reason alone, it’s one of the more powerful tools for building employee engagement and retention. Briefly put, the theory tells us behavior is a function of its consequences and results. Change the results and you change the behavior – it’s that simple.

 You can think about this in any situation you use as a leader: recognition, increasing behaviors that support diversity and inclusion in your team, incentive compensation, and building employee retention. Generally speaking, there are four primary approaches to reinforcement theory: (1) positive reinforcement, (2) negative reinforcement, (3) positive punishment, and (4) negative punishment. However, we know only two of these strategies are truly powerful and transformative when it comes to building employee retention and engagement, and creating diverse and inclusive teams.

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 why growth is so hard sometimes.  Our friends in psychology call this  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.  If we take building diverse and inclusive teams for a moment, we probably are most comfortable and receive the most gratification from working with people similar to us.   Similar could include background, education, socioeconomic status, or even gender and race.  You can overcome this by linking rewards to doing the tough stuff.  If an employee struggles with connecting and working outside their immediate circle of comfort – ask them to work with others outside of this circle and provide recognition.  If an early career employee struggles with dependability and completing deadlines on time – make your expectation clear and provide several sources of recognition for their progress. Focus on positive consequences.

Work to understand the ‘why’ of behavior.  Does working with a diverse team make your teammate feel self-conscious?  Could family demands lead your other teammate to be late to work (and maybe a simple schedule switch could help)?What is each member of your team seeking to achieve in the next five years? What are their biggest concerns?  What the leader has to understand is not only the “why” of the positive behavior but the “why” of the negative behavior that’s interfering with 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 accelerating performance – and from it employee engagement and retention. 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 some of the examples we talked about.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement Graph

Download the Whitepaper: How to Earn the Loyalty of Enthusiastic and Committed Employees: Reinforcement Theory and Employee Retention

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