Why Is Operant Conditioning Useful in the Workplace?

Receiving recognition for achievements at work is motivating.

Receiving recognition for achievements at work is motivating.

If sometimes at work you feel like a lab rat, you can thank B.F. Skinner for giving you a reason to compare yourself to one. Organizations apply the direct results of lab rat experimentation in workplaces every day through operant conditioning. Skinner proved he could train or condition rats to press a lever to get rewarded with stimuli such as food or to not press the lever in order to avoid an expected punishment. Similar forms of operant conditioning are useful in the workplace to reward jobs well done and stop bad behaviors.

Positive Reinforcement

Organizations can use positive reinforcement to condition the brain by rewarding positive or desired behaviors. This type of operant conditioning at work is common, most often in the form of raises, bonuses, promotions and other forms of awards or recognition that directly relate to a job well done. Getting a reward for good performance at work is highly motivating, prompting most people to continue to perform well because they want to do a good job in the hope or expectation that more rewards will be forthcoming.

Negative Reinforcement

While positive reinforcement involves rewards that give you something you like, negative reinforcement involves rewards that remove something you don't like. Most people don’t like to be micromanaged. If you can prove that you consistently do your job well, and your manager steps away to allow you to do it without putting you under a microscope, you can consider that a form of negative reinforcement. You’ve earned a reward because you have more freedom in your work.

Positive Punishment

While reinforcement rewards desired behaviors, punishment aims to stop undesirable behaviors. With positive punishment, you get something you don’t want when you do something your boss doesn’t want you to do. Punishment is most effective when it occurs immediately after the undesired behavior. The most common and most effective form of positive punishment at work is a verbal scolding. Being told your bad behavior is on your boss’s radar is probably going to make you stop doing it. Getting fired might top the list of the most undesirable punishments, but since it won’t condition you to perform better at that company, it’s not an effective form of operant workplace conditioning.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment is the direct opposite of negative reinforcement. With negative reinforcement, when you perform appropriately, your boss takes away something you don’t want. In the case of negative punishment, however, when you perform inappropriately, your boss takes away something you do want. Examples of negative punishment include everything from losing a special parking space to missing out on an anticipated promotion.

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About the Author

A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.

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