Positive and negative reinforcement are common theories used by managers in a workplace to motivate employees to act. Negative reinforcement is often confused as a negative consequence for a behavior. Instead, whereas positive reinforcement is the addition of a reward or benefit for desired behavior, negative reinforcement is the removal of an undesired activity or event in response to a preferred behavior. In some cases, negative reinforcement promotes positive action, but it can also perpetuate problematic behaviors.
Weekly Training Meetings
In some companies, employees are required to attend weekly or periodic training meetings. Goals may include improving sales and service performance. Often, these meetings occur because of poor or limited performance by employees. A manager could use negative reinforcement to promote improved performance by offering to discontinue these meetings in lieu of employee achievements. Employees don't often enjoy these routine meetings and may work hard to achieve sales, service or production standards to see the meetings end.
Saturday Work Days
Some companies have six-day work weeks and often require employees to come in on Saturdays. Realizing that employees would typically prefer to not work on Saturdays, a manager could offer to end Saturday work days if employees achieve levels of performance necessary during the five day workweek. This not only serves as motivation for employees, but it can also improve their energy and enthusiasm for their work based on more personal time to relax.
Not all negative reinforcement is beneficial to a business or its employees. In some cases, managers inadvertently use negative reinforcement by training to put a temporary fix on a burden. As an example, if a manager announces that lunch breaks will change from one hour to 30 minutes, he will likely hear complaints and frustration among employees. By quickly going back on the change in response to the complaints, he has negatively reinforced that whining and complaining about policies is the way to get them changed or removed.
Another example of a poor result of negative reinforcement relates to the expectation that employees participate in department meetings or training sessions and other internal activities. A positive reinforcer might include a drawing or small perk for employees when they meet this expectation. Instead, if managers choose to cancel the meetings and events in response to low attendance, they effectively reinforce that avoiding unwanted work activities means they will eventually go away.
Neil Kokemuller has been an active business, finance and education writer and content media website developer since 2007. He has been a college marketing professor since 2004. Kokemuller has additional professional experience in marketing, retail and small business. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Iowa State University.