Leading Employees to Productive Behaviours with Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning theory describes how individuals learn productive behaviours in an organization. The theory explains that an individual is encouraged to behave productively and discouraged to behave unproductively, based on the introduction or removal of conditions, according to the University of Central Florida.

Positive Reinforcement — When an employee receives an email from their manager praising their work in solving a problem, it is a form of positive reinforcement. Receiving the email is a good stimulus intended to encourage productive behaviour. In this example, positive refers to the introduction or addition of a pleasant stimulus (i.e., the praise-filled email.)

Negative Reinforcement — When an employee starts a new job, their work may need to be reviewed by another person. Once the employee has become proficient at their job, the review process can be removed by the manager. Eliminating the review process encourages the employee to continue working proficiently. In this scenario, negative refers to the removal or subtraction of an unpleasant stimulus (i.e., work being reviewed by another employee.)

Punishment — When an employee demonstrates unproductive behaviour, managers can apply positive or negative punishment to discourage the bad behaviour. Positive punishment refers to adding something unpleasant — like having to work extra time to make up for being late — whereas negative punishment describes the removal of something pleasant, like removing the option to work remotely in order to monitor performance. There is also the option to do nothing while expecting the bad behaviour to stop. While this alternative (also called extinction) may be effective, it is often problematic to leave bad behaviour left unchecked.

Applying Operant Conditioning

The effectiveness of using operant conditioning can be increased by intentionally (instead of casually) applying these approaches and tailoring the reinforcement or punishment based on individual preferences.

When an employee is behaving productively, a typical reaction may be to reward that employee with praise or a monetary incentive. However, before acting, managers should consider if there are aspects of the job that may be considered unpleasant and could be removed instead. Using negative reinforcement could be equally effective as rewarding a good employee with a bonus. There is the option to use both positive and negative reinforcement. By using an intentional approach, managers will have a broader range of options to encourage productive behaviours.

It is important to understand how the reinforcement or punishment will be perceived by the employee. An employee that appreciates money instead of praise will not respond as strongly to an email praising their work. The employee may believe their work is not valued and start to disengage from work. An employee who is not bothered by working extra time will not be discouraged from being late if working extra time is used as a form of punishment.

Managers can lead employees to demonstrate productive behaviours and achieve higher levels of performance by taking a more intentional and personalized approach to managing employee behaviour.

Nigel Taklalsingh | Contributing Writer