Debunking The Myths of Management (Part 3)

Positive Reinforcement

I had an interesting email from a reader recently, asking if there was something wrong with her!

She said she worked in a positive environment, where she was often getting positive reinforcement for what she was doing. Her boss was continuously praising her for being on time with her attendance or project inputs or meeting minutes. Yet, this lady didn’t feel as great as she thought she should. Something she said in her email hit home to me: “I feel that I am being manipulated, as if my manager had been on a course that told him to keep on praising people and this would motivate everyone. But I don’t feel good when he does it all the time. Am I wrong to feel this way, Sean?”

Interesting, eh? This lady was in a positive environment, but not feeling positive. Why?

Well, it may have something to do with our third myth of management; the fact that positive reinforcement practices often fail because they are dealing with behaviours, not performance optimisation.

Behaviour modification was popularised by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1930’s. His basic ideas revolved around the facts that when employees received positive reinforcement, they are more likely to repeat the behaviour that gained the praise in the first place. And negative reinforcement would force the employee to engage in that particular behaviour less often.

However, this often feels fake and manipulative. The lady quoted above could subconsciously see that the praise wasn’t really genuine. If it was, she would have accepted it for what it was. Positive reinforcement often affects the employee’s extrinsic motivation, but rarely their intrinsic motivation.

Coming to work on time because you know that if you don’t you will be reprimanded is an example of extrinsic motivation – you are motivated to do something because of what will result at the end of it.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within and is based on a personally-held belief.

Extrinsic motivation is compliance-based; intrinsic motivation is interest-based. Positive reinforcement systems encourage and improve extrinsic motivation, but not intrinsic.

As a manager, you need to find ways to create environments that improve people’s intrinsic motivation, things that will drive them from the inside, so their passion, drive, ingenuity, creativity and energy are tapped into. Manipulating by continuous praise won’t accomplish this.

Remember to mix the two, and you should get better results.

Thanks again


Sean McPheat

Managing Director

MTD Training   

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Updated on: 30 December, 2011

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