Reinforcement Theory in the Workplace

Developed by American psychologist B.F. Skinner, the reinforcement theory states that consequences influence an individual's behavior. Consequently, an employee will choose her behaviors based on past personal or experienced outcomes of the same behavior. Reinforcement within the workplace can shape employee behavior by connecting the outcome of an action to a positive or negative consequence.

  1. Types of Reinforcement in the Workplace

    • Skinner created the reinforcement theory while studying the behavior of lab rats as they received food rewards for performing different actions. The results of his experiment led Skinner to name different types of reinforcement. Positive reinforcement refers to rewarding desired behaviors, such as an employee receiving a bonus after meeting an important deadline. Negative reinforcement refers to eliminating a negative outcome to a behavior in order to promote the same behavior. An example could be a boss encouraging feedback from his employees without becoming anymore upset for the interruption. In this theory, "extinction" refers to getting rid all types of reinforcement in order to eliminate a behavior. In the workplace, an example of this could be a staff's non-responsiveness to a co-worker's constant off-topic remarks. "Punishment" in the reinforcement theory involves providing a negative outcome after the demonstration of a behavior. For example, an employer may write up an employee for insubordination.

    The Goal of the Reinforcement Theory

    • An employer can use the reinforcement theory to help motivate workers over a long period by initiating and directing employee behaviors, and by encouraging the maintenance of performance levels. In order to improve employee behaviors, the University of Baltimore states that managers should help employees focus on performance consequences because there is substantial evidence that positive reinforcement can help improve behaviors. However, it is helpful for employees to receive training, be knowledgeable in the company's policy, have a role in goal setting and have education opportunities to learn about the positive outcomes of behaviors the company desires. However, consequences for any behaviors should only occur after the demonstration of a behavior in the form of incentives, feedback and recognition.

    Reinforcement Theory Process

    • The University of Baltimore indicates four steps to complete when using the reinforcement theory in the workplace. The first step is to specify the desired behaviors, which are not to be confused with traits. Second, employers should measure employee performance against set standards with the use of tests and observations. Third, managers should provide constant positive reinforcement with the assistance of graphs that chart progress and feedback. Lastly, an employer must evaluate a work's effectiveness against set standards.

    Reinforcement Intervals and Ratios

    • In the reinforcement theory, scheduling reinforcement can help encourage employees to perform desired behaviors over the long term. Reinforcement at fixed intervals sets a specific amount of time for an employee to complete a task. For example, an employee must gain five new clients every three days in order to receive the predetermined reward. A fixed ratio provides reinforcement for behaviors after a certain number of responses. For example, employees may earn a pizza party at the end of a month if they submit all of their reports on time. With variable intervals, a company provides reinforcements for desired behavior at random times so employees do not get used to a routine. Variable ratios refer to providing reinforcements randomly, regardless of the number of desired behaviors employees demonstrate.

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