Positive reinforcement is the practice of rewarding desirable employee behavior in order to strengthen that behavior. For example, when you praise an employee for doing a good job, you increase the likelihood of him/her doing that job very well again. Positive reinforcement both shapes behavior and enhances an employee’s self-image.

The psychologist B. F. Skinner showed how behavior is affected by what happens after a behavior is completed. He saw that people repeated rewarded behavior and tended to not repeat behavior that brought negative results.

You can apply Skinner’s principles to your supervisory work. First, carefully determine exactly what work performance is desired. Then, together with the employee, set specific goals for higher performance.

At regular intervals, e.g., weekly, review progress together with the employee, and then reinforce it in order to strengthen it. Recognizing and rewarding desirable employee behavior is the essential key to motivating employees to work more productively. This method will reap many benefits:

  1. It clearly defines and communicates expected behaviors and strengthens the connection between high performance and rewards.
  2. It reinforces an employee’s behavior immediately after learning a new technique and promotes quick, thorough learning.
  3. It motivates effective workers to continue to do good work. Lack of reinforcement leads to job dissatisfaction.
  4. It increases productivity by rewarding workers who conserve time and materials.
  5. Employees who are rewarded after they successfully perform feel self-confident and become eager to learn new techniques, take advanced training, and accept more responsibility.
  6. Rewarding employees who suggest improved work procedures will produce more innovation – if you create a relaxed work environment, reward new ideas and tolerate innovative failures.
  7. Employees who receive recognition for their achievements are more enthusiastic about their work, more cooperative, and more open to change.
  8. When you show appreciation and reward employees for good work, you increase their job commitment and organizational loyalty.


To reinforce successfully, you need to define exactly what it is that constitutes desirable behavior. You should then set specific, measurable work goals with each employee or with the entire team, and then decide together, which behaviors are most important for achieving the results.

When a plan for performance improvement is in place, employees understand precisely what behaviors are expected, and you know precisely what behaviors to reinforce. Periodically discuss the employee’s progress with him/her, focusing on positive accomplishments. If goals were not met, discuss that with the employee and make necessary changes. Always conclude with an up-beat summary of progress.

Your best employees are sometimes neglected because you are busy resolving problems. But it’s often among these great employees that you will see the greatest improvements. Don’t overlook them!

Wander around your facility trying to catch employees doing something right – and then, immediately positively reinforce it.

When reinforcing, tell the employee exactly what behaviors you value so that those behaviors will be repeated. Your words and actions will have a surprisingly great impact on employees and will spur them to greater productivity. Reinforce frequently so that employees are continuously motivated and enthusiastic. These guidelines will help make your reinforcements most effective:

  • Be specific. Give the employee concrete, specific information about what he/she did right.
  • Reinforce immediately. Reward the employee as soon as possible after his/her good behavior.
  • Be sincere. Show genuine appreciation for the employee’s achievement.
  • Reinforce often but unpredictably. Regular reinforcement comes to be expected and fails to motivate. Frequent, but random, reinforcement ismore effective.
  • Reward small increments of improvement. Most performance improvement is gradual. Rewarding good effort and small improvements will lead to bigger improvements.
  • Give realistic reinforcement. Rewards should be proportionate to the importance of the behavior.
  • Personalize the reinforcement. Because employees differ in their needs and desires, the reward that motivates one employee may not motivate another. You must reward each employee in accordance with that specific employee’s needs.

Listen to your employees, observe their behavior, become sensitive to their needs, and youwill be able you to personalize reinforcement for each employee. Consider forthrightly asking an employee which kind of rewards he/she finds most attractive. Effective reinforcers can be grouped into six major categories.

1. Recognition and approval

2. Money

3. Advancement or promotion

4. Opportunities for personal or professional growth

5. Preferred work assignments

6. Improved working conditions

Recognition and approval are among the most powerful reinforcers. Everyone likes to feel appreciated and important. Here are someways you can reinforce with approval.

  • Give employees positive feedback on their performance.
  • Initiate an employee-of-the-month award for the employee with the greatest productivity, most improvement, or whatever is important to your unit.
  • A simple “thank you” when an employee does especially good work, should not be overlooked.
  • Post pictures and write-ups of productive employees on your bulletin board.
  • Publicize the work and accomplishments of your employees in your organization’s newsletter.
  • Make generous use of certificates, plaques, pins, caps, or flowers as rewards for employees who have worked hard or achieved important goals.
  • Write a letter of special commendation for a high-achieving employee and place a copy of it in his/her file.
  • Arrange for special attention from top management to your most productive employees. For example, invite your manager to present a letter of appreciation to one of your employees.

Money is another powerful incentive. Recommend the deserving employee for a monetary award, bonus, or raise, linking increased money to improved performance. The size of the monetary reward should be proportionate to the performance: money only motivates when compensation is tied to performance.

Advancement and promotion are important rewards for some of your best performers, who may quit and seek greater challenges if their growth needs aren’t met. If promotion isn’t possible, reward the employee with new responsibilities that broaden his/her experience and expertise, within the limits of your organization’s merit promotion policies.

Opportunities for personal or professional growth can be satisfying reinforcers for some employees. Reinforce top performers by assigning them new, challenging tasks, or by offering advanced training. Consider letting them represent the unit at meetings and sending them to other locations to study new processes.

Preferred work assignments can reinforce good performers for their work. People usually enjoy doing what they do best. For some employees, the work itself is the best reward because of the intrinsic satisfaction and pleasure they find in the work process.

Improved working conditions can make the environment more pleasant and be used as reinforcement for greater productivity.

Some other rewards you can give for superior work include letting the employees work with their preferred co-workers, involving them more in the planning process, and keeping them fully informed about company matters, providing greater latitude to decide such things as work sequence and permitting them to improve physical aspects of the work environment.

Finally, don’t forget to schedule some fun activities, such as parties and picnics, when your team achieves major goals. Through skillful use of positive reinforcement, you will increase your employees’ self-esteem and call forth from them greater contributions and increased dedication to the job.


About the author: Besides his clinical work and university teaching, Dr. Martin Seidenfeld provides consulting to organizations on management issues and on managing organizational stress.