You probably either know about the principles of operant conditioning or have even applied them without connecting them to B.F. Skinner. Simply put, Skinner proposed that the study of human behavior should be based on observable actions and consequences. In what he referred to as “operant conditioning,” behavior that is reinforced tends to be repeated whereas behavior that is not reinforced supposedly tends to die out. Even though Skinner experimented with animals, the principle of operant conditioning can be found in many contexts, including the workplace.
Operant Conditioning in Organizations
Because operant conditioning is essentially a form of learning, it can be useful in many different contexts. You might actually know examples from your own work experience, but you wouldn’t refer to them as operant conditioning. Employers use conditioning to enhance a desired behavior and suppress another by implementing reward and punishment, respectively. In an article published in the Journal of General Management, researchers reported an example that shows that the principles of operant conditioning should be employed wisely. At a Fortune 500 company, managers were to praise employees regularly. As a result, because employees felt the praise was insincere, creative and innovative discussions with managers became less frequent.
Employers can make use of positive reinforcement in many different ways. For example, if employees shall choose healthier meals in the lunchroom because, then, they tend to be more productive after their lunch break, an employer can incentivize this choice, which is referred to as positive reinforcement. A good way would be to introduce a system that registers how many times an employee has chosen a healthy meal, and rewards her after 10 completed meals. With this method, employees eventually develop a habit that could positively influence their productivity after lunch.
Other areas where conditioning can be useful are sales or HR management. Organizations, for example, are often concerned with increasing sales. Positive reinforcers, such as a bonus system or stakeholder options, are frequently implemented to encourage employees to be more efficient in sales. However, ideally, you wouldn't need these instruments at all. With negative reinforcement, you’d withhold an unpleasant stimulus, for example, mandatory workshops outside of office hours that are designed to help employees increase sales. If employees know that they'd have to attend these workshops if they don't meet their sales goals, this will likely reinforce more productive behavior.
Extinguishing Undesirable Behavior
Punishing employees for undesirable behavior can be problematic since it could lead to even more undesirable behavior, for example, defiance, boycotting, sabotaging the workplace, etc. What is often forgotten is management’s central role in reinforcing behavior in employees. For example, if management behaves unethically, this could be reinforcement for employees to behave unethically as well. Researchers of Florida State University published study results in the International Journal of Hospitality Management that confirm the importance of executives’ leadership for the behavior of employees, in this case middle managers. Serving as a role model will help management to extinguish undesirable behavior of employees.
Dr. Andrea S. Dauber has been writing since 2008. Her areas of expertise are personal and career development. She has published everything from scholarly articles to book chapters. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Mainz, Germany. As a certified professional and career coach, she coaches clients and conducts workshops at universities.