Bringing out the best in people: How to apply the astonishing power of positive reinforcement

This is one of the first books I read on management, and it introduced me to concepts I still find highly relevant. In fact, I quote and reference it in many of my principles. This summary introduces many of the key concepts, but it is hardly comprehensive, and I do not have notes (much less the corresponding graphs and charts) for all chapters. I highly recommend that new managers and others in leadership roles buy the full book.

Management by common sense is not management at all (Chapter 2)

You have to take a scientific approach to management or you risk doing more harm than good. Stop trying to do things your own way and do what works.

Common sense ideas just mean ideas that haven’t been challenged or proven to be true. They’re the unreflective opinions of ordinary people. Should leaders be unreflective? Of course not!

When you ask someone to use “common sense” what you really mean is do what I would have done if you had the same experience and perspective as I do — which of course no one else does.

Everyone always does what makes sense given their experience. That doesn’t remotely make it the right thing to do!

Common sense accepts the obvious; science questions the obvious. Common sense says, “Of course.” Science asks, “But why?”

Common sense is vague; scientific knowledge is precise. Common sense is not consistent; scientific knowledge is.

Common sense is gained through uncontrolled experience; scientific knowledge is gained through controlled experiments.

Keeping good records is the best way to learn from your successes and failures.

Not knowing why things get better or worse is a problem. If it gets better for no reason, later it will get worse for no reason—and you won’t know why. You won’t know how to reproduce the good results or prevent the bad.

It’s not enough to know what works, you need to know why.

You need to question assumptions.

There are so many popular proposed solutions for improving business. But how do you know which work? You need to learn how to identify cause and effect.

Louder, Longer, Meaner (Chapter 3)

We try to manage performance by telling people what to do. The more they fail to do so, the louder and meaner and more direct we get with no results. Perhaps it even backfires. We try to punish people into compliance. We could even scream at them. Of course that doesn’t work either.

Managers spend 85% of their time telling people what to do, figuring out what to tell them to do, or figuring out what to do when they don’t do it. But if people always did what they were supposed to do everyone would be perfect, in excellent shape, only eating nutritious food.

There are two ways to change behavior:

  1. Do something before the behavior, or
  2. Give a consequence after.

Antecedents set the stage for a behavior to occur. Consequences reward or punish the behavior when it occurs.

Antecedents in themselves don’t change behavior. Seeing a stop sign doesn’t make you stop. The consequences of getting pulled over make you stop.

Consequences alter the likelihood that the behavior will occur. They cause it to happen either more or less likely in the future.

Antecedents have limited control over behavior. Effective ones get it to occur once. It’s up to the consequences to get it to happen again.

Business is about lasting, consistent performance. But it invests in antecedents rather than consequences. Memos, training, policies, mission statements, slogans, posters, meetings, etc.

Effective antecedents initiate but do not sustain performance.

Direct mail or block walking is an effective way to get someone to do something once. Get them to vote or get them to visit a store.

If they spend $1,000 on a direct mail campaign and 20 out of 10,000 people register for the event, it’s considered a success because the marketing cost is built into the registration price.

But if 80 out of 10,000 employees respond to what we tell them, that’s a huge failure. And a lot of companies think repeating the message 125 times will work. But that’s incredibly ineffective.

People don’t respond to warning labels. Even labels on cigarettes saying cigarettes kill.

No matter how attractive or frightening an antecedent is, it will have a long-lasting effect only if consistently paired with a consequence that is meaningful to the person involved.

The consequences have to be reliable and consistent to produce results. If everyone got ticketed for speeding every time they went over the limit, no one would speed.

No one touches a fence that says “Warning: High voltage.” But people regularly disregard warnings when they don’t expect a direct and immediate consequence. e.g: Don’t text and drive. Brush your teeth every day.

Threats are antecedents. If they don’t believe consequences will follow, they may not obey or will only give it a half hearted effort.

The problem is a lot of managers make threats or warnings but don’t follow through with consequences. As a result, their employees don’t take them seriously and don’t listen or care. At worst, they resent or refuse to listen as a result.

The reason why most people don’t do what they should is we don’t see the clear and immediate consequences of failing to do what we should. Even worse, we see the immediate benefits of doing what we know we shouldn’t.

Examples: Eating too much sugar even though we know we shouldn’t, drinking too much alcohol even though we know it’s bad for us.

  • Immediate consequence: Feels good
  • Long-term consequences: Health issues and even early death

Fail to brush teeth:

  • Immediate consequences: convenience, feeling lazy
  • Long term consequences: cavities

Fail to exercise:

  • Immediate: convenient, lazy
  • Long term: heart disease, die early

We have two options:

  • Learn to truly believe and trust the long term consequences.
  • Find short term consequences to reinforce good behavior.

Behavior is a function of its consequences (Chapter 4)

Don’t assume people act a certain way because of past experience; they act that way based on expectation of future results or consequences. People do what they do because of what happens to them when they do it.

Performance is what happens every day.

Every day, people leave work either more or less motivated for the following day based on what happened to them that day.

Every behavior leads to good and bad consequences. When we face good consequences, we do more. When we face bad consequences, we (try to) do less.

Behavioral consequences are the things that follow a behavior that change the probability it will be repeated.

Because we can observe the impact of a consequence on the rate or frequency of a behavior, we can begin to understand how to influence or change any behavior.

There are only 4 behavioral consequences—2 that increase the behavior and 2 that decrease it:

  • Positive reinforcement (increase)
  • Negative reinforcement (increase)
  • Punishment (decrease)
  • Penalty (decrease)

Many behaviors and reinforcements are subconscious:

  • Turn on a light switch, and the light comes on
  • Press a button, and the car turns on
  • Turn the steering wheel, and the car goes that direction

Someone might perform 1,000 actions a day. And they might get so many positive reinforcement that some actions become subconscious.

Other types of reinforcement involve interactions with people:

  • Smile, and people smile back
  • Say hi, and people smile
  • Spread gossip, and get attention from people and feel important

Other types of reinforcement involve consequences provided by manager or even peers:

  • Skip standup -> no negative feedback -> higher chance of doing it again
  • Write robust tests -> get praised by peers -> write more tests
  • No code pushed for a week -> manager wants to talk about performance -> get better at pushing code regularly

The goal of managers is to encourage behaviors that add value to the business and discourage / decrease the frequency of behaviors that interfere or have negative results.

4 Types of Consequences:

  • Positive reinforcement: Get something you want
  • Negative reinforcement: Escape or avoid something you don’t want
  • Punishment: Get something you don’t want
  • Penalty: Lose something you have

What are you doing to make sure the right consequences occur every day for the right behaviors?

Do you only reward positive behaviors? Are negative behaviors also being rewarded in some way? Are negative behaviors being positively reinforced somehow?

All you have to do to see what is being reinforced is enter an organization and observe what people are doing. What they do during the workday is what is being reinforced.

A company is always designed to produce the results it produces:

  • If there are lots of bugs, the behaviors that lead to that are being reinforced.
  • If developers (who have the skillset) are not spending enough time improving code quality, that behavior is being negatively reinforced.
  • If products run behind or over budget, the behaviors that lead to that are being reinforced
  • Etc.

All we have to do is identify the behaviors that lead to good and bad results, then encourage them. Sometimes simply identifying and encouraging the right behaviors makes further consequences unnecessary.

Can we introduce and arrange consequences in such a way that tasks that are difficult, dull, or boring become exciting, challenging, and rewarding? Yes.

Managers are responsible for identifying the behaviors that lead to good and bad results and arranging for the consequences that are necessary and sufficient to accomplish the company’s objectives.

Positive and negative reinforcement encourages behavior but for different reasons and with different results:

  • Negative reinforcement generates enough behavior to escape or avoid punishment. It results in doing just enough to get by.
  • Positive reinforcement generates more behavior than minimally required. This is called discretionary effort, and maximizing discretionary effort is the only way an organization can maximize performance.

Reinforcement is any consequence that increases performance. If it doesn’t increase performance, then by definition, it isn’t a reinforcer. This means if performance is not improving, reinforcement is not occurring.

Consequences are defined by their effect, not their intentions.

In other words, chewing someone out could lead to an increase in poor performance. If so, it’s because it was a positive reinforcer for bad behavior.

Even a pat on the back could be a positive reinforcer for a decrease in performance. For a pat on the back to be a positive reinforcer, the person has to care about what the other person thinks.

Most punishment in organizations is unintentional. It’s because management doesn’t understand how consequences vary from person to person.

Remember: You’re judged by your results, not intentions. Your reinforcers are judged by the receiver, not your intentions.

When people feel under appreciated, it’s because of extinction.

Extinction is when someone expects positive consequences but nothing happens.

Most mangers think doing nothing has no impact on performance, but this is wrong. Their inaction actually changes future performance. They either promote extinction or open the door for negative behavior being positively reinforced.

If people take initiative to go above and beyond and are met with no favorable consequence, they’ll stop doing it. Some positive consequences might be intrinsic, but some need to come from management.

If people take shortcuts and get no positive reinforcement for doing things right, the positive reinforcement of saving time will cause them to take more shortcuts.

Bringing out the best in an organization requires all performers to get the right consequences every day.

Be careful not to ignore your good performers and focus on your problem performers—because you’ll lose your good performers due to lack of positive feedback.

Impact erosion: The shelf life of all consequences is limited.

The more immediate the consequences, the more effective at changing behavior.

Reinforcers are more effective than rewards because reinforcers are immediate.

A smaller, more immediate reinforcer has more effect than a larger delayed reinforcer.

People don’t resist change if the change provides immediate positive benefits. They resist because it’s hard or delayed or extra work.

Everyone’s behavior makes sense to them.

This is because everyone is reinforced in different ways. If we look deep enough we can discover the consequences that maintain almost any behavior.

Finding fault with people for their behavior is unproductive and unfair. They are simply behaving in a manner consistent with the consequences they’re receiving now and have received in the past.

The role of leaders in every organization is not to find fault or place blame but to analyze why people are behaving as they are and modify the consequences to promote the behavior they need.

Chapters 5 - 20 coming soon!

Copyright © 2023 Richard Morgan.