Leaders Know When To Reinforce

Gerwig 2015-07-20

Do you have a favorite coffee cup? Or perhaps, if you’re not a coffee drinker, you have a favorite tea cup. About every 5 years I end up with a “new” favorite coffee cup. It’s not always based on the one that’s the most expensive. Sometimes I develop an affinity for a particular cup because of its color or shape or where I obtained it or who gave it to me or the logo on the cup.

One of my favorite all-time cups was one my wife bought me at the zoo in Washington, DC many years ago. It was a tiger cup and I remember that the handle was made of the tiger’s tail. Then one day to great disappointment, the cup broke. Over the next few months, I developed a new favorite. And on and on it has gone over the years. One of my current favorites is a cup I picked up at a Starbucks in Japan a few years ago. I like the color styling and the size. It also reminds me of my frequent travels in Asia.

But another favorite is a small, worn, kinda plain cup that has a Colorado School of Mines logo on it. I like it mainly because of the size and because of many good memories I’ve made in Colorado over the last 30+ years. It’s ironic since going to the School of Mines in Golden was not a highlight for me. Oh well, I like the cup nonetheless.

The other day, both cups happened to be washed and in the cupboard at the same time. This is rare because I often keep one in my office. So I had a choice to make. Which cup do I select? They’re both favorites and, truth be told, the coffee tastes the same out of either one. To be completely honest, the decision was not difficult. After all, we’re talking about a coffee cup.

But some decisions aren’t so easy. If you’re on a basketball team and a teammate misses a shot, what do you do? Do you encourage them? Do you yell at them? Or do you ignore them? What if you’re the coach? What if it’s in a close game against your bitter rivals? What if the championship is on the line?

Or perhaps you have business goals that you’re expected to achieve but the team doesn’t meet them. Do you chastise everyone? Do you help them stay focused? Or do you encourage them? The decision isn’t always easy. Do you reinforce and encourage or do you give “direct” feedback and share your disappointment publicly?

The decision, in behavioral science terms, concerns consequences. There are four types of consequences to every behavior but the one that yields the greatest results, over time, is positive reinforcement. It’s recognizing positive (not perfect) behaviors. The behavior could be a baby step in the right direction. Or it could be a monumental goal achievement. But the idea is the same. You recognize a positive behavior and you reinforce it.

Positive reinforcement creates a “want to” disposition and attitude while fear and overly direct feedback creates a “have to” approach, especially when it’s the default system. Performance is always maximized in a positive reinforcement environment because the performer wants to excel. There is a place for tough feedback and negative consequences, but if your coaching is done correctly, you’ll be giving positive reinforcement much more frequently, say 10 to 1.

In business, at home, and on the sports field, those individuals and teams that excel over the long-run make the choice to encourage each other. They make the choice to recognize and reinforce incremental positive behavior. They don’t publicly humiliate or continually condescend or patronize those in their organization or on their team.

It’s your choice. Just like choosing which cup to use, you get to choose which approach to take. Be wise. Choose to reinforce. Be sincere. Recognize behaviors that add value. Behaviors that demonstrate a new level of achievement. Behaviors that show progress. World-class leaders make positive recognition a choice.

How about you? Do you fall into the trap of chastisement and negative reinforcement when you’re frustrated or do you look for, and reinforce, positive behaviors?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.


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