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Reinforcement and Behavioral Change

What are the best practices that organizations utilize to train employees in new job skills?

Strategies for Behavioral Change
From a managerial standpoint, several strategies for behavioral change are available to facilitate learning in organizational settings. At least four different types should be noted: (1) positive reinforcement; (2) avoidance learning, or negative reinforcement; (3) extinction; and (4) punishment. Each type plays a different role in both the manner in which and extent to which learning occurs. Each will be considered separately here.

In order for a positive reinforcement to be effective in facilitating the repetition of desired behavior, several conditions must be met. First, the reinforcer itself (praise) must be valued by the employee. It would prove ineffective in shaping behavior if employees were indifferent to it. Second, the reinforcer must be strongly tied to the desired behavior. Receipt of the reinforcer by the employee must be directly contingent upon performing the desired behavior. “Rewards must result from performance, and the greater the degree of performance by an employee, the greater should be his reward.”12 It is important to keep in mind here that “desired behavior” represents behavior defined by the supervisor, not the employee. Thus, for praise to be a reinforcer, not only must it be valued by the employee, but it must directly follow the desired behavior and should be more intense as the behavior is closer to the ideal the supervisor has in mind. Praise thrown out at random is unlikely to reinforce the desired behavior. Third, there must be ample occasion for the reinforcer to be administered following desired behavior. If the reinforcer is tied to certain behavior that seldom occurs, then individuals will seldom be reinforced and will probably not associate this behavior with a reward. For example, if praise is only provided for truly exceptional performance, then it is unlikely to have a powerful impact on the desired behavior. It is important that the performance-reward contingencies be structured so that they are easily attainable.

Avoidance Learning. A second method of reinforcement is avoidance learning, or negative reinforcement. Avoidance learning refers to seeking to avoid an unpleasant condition or outcome by following a desired behavior. Employees learn to avoid unpleasant situations by behaving in certain ways. If an employee correctly performs a task or is continually prompt in coming to work (see Exhibit 4.6), the supervisor may refrain from harassing, reprimanding, or otherwise embarrassing the employee. Presumably, the employee learns over time that engaging in correct behavior diminishes admonition from the supervisor. In order to maintain this condition, the employee continues to behave as desired.

Extinction. The principle of extinction suggests that undesired behavior will decline as a result of a lack of positive reinforcement. If the perpetually tardy employee in the example in Exhibit 4.6 consistently fails to receive supervisory praise and is not recommended for a pay raise, we would expect this nonreinforcement to lead to an “extinction” of the tardiness. The employee may realize, albeit subtly, that being late is not leading to desired outcomes, and she may try coming to work on time.

Punishment. Finally, a fourth strategy for behavior change used by managers and supervisors is punishment. Punishment is the administration of unpleasant or adverse outcomes as a result of undesired behavior. An example of the application of punishment is for a supervisor to publicly reprimand or fine an employee who is habitually tardy (see Exhibit 4.6). Presumably, the employee would refrain from being tardy in the future in order to avoid such an undesirable outcome. The most frequently used punishments (along with the most frequently used rewards) are shown in Table 4.1.

he use of punishment is indeed one of the most controversial issues of behavior change strategies. Although punishment can have positive work outcomes—especially if it is administered in an impersonal way and as soon as possible after the transgression—negative repercussions can also result when employees either resent the action or feel they are being treated unfairly. These negative outcomes from punishment are shown in Exhibit 4.7. Thus, although punishment represents a potent force in corrective learning, its use must be carefully considered and implemented. In general, for punishment to be effective the punishment should “fit the crime” in severity, should be given in private, and should be explained to the employee.

Detracting a Workplace Bully
Studies showcase that nearly 50 percent of employees in the U.S. workforce face bullying at one point in time. All types of bullying, not just discrimination or harassment, are important to consider.

Angela Anderson was working for a law school administration council and experienced bullying firsthand. Often her manager would yell at her in front of other coworkers, and it was clear to Angela that she was not well-liked. Unfortunately it was not just Angela who felt the wrath of this manager, who often handled interactions with other employees the same way. Many of the employees, including Angela, attempted to appease their bullying manager, but nothing would help. One day Angela was threatened by her manager, and before Angela could reach the HR department, she was fired. This example is an extreme case, but being able to take recourse against unwanted and disruptive employee behavior is an important action for any workplace manager.