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Good Job! 8 Essential Ingredients of Positive Reinforcement

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.”

–John Wooden, one of the most successful coaches in the history of college basketball

John Wooden

We hear it all the time.  Books, articles, and speakers constantly advise business leaders to practice positive reinforcement. Beside the obvious benefit and moral value of treating colleagues with respect, well-motivated employees are typically more creative and productive.

As a result, positive reinforcement can be one the most effective tools leaders possess to change behavior. Yet there are two factors working against them. First, most managers have been trained to pay attention to what’s wrong rather than what’s right. It takes conscious effort to see what’s right and then link that positive action to a positive outcome.

Second, communication studies show that employees need to hear four positive comments to counteract a single negative.  That’s right, 4 positives = 1 negative!  When managers are already prone to focus on wrong versus right, that’s an extremely difficult ratio to achieve.

Given those factors, it’s clear that the tool of positive reinforcement requires thoughtful planning and consistent action. Leaders and managers alike need to understand the power of positive reinforcement, what it means to their organization, and how to apply it in a way that’s consistent and effective.

The question, then, isn’t whether positive reinforcement should be used, but how it should be used. These eight POSITIVE principles provide a great framework for your team to follow.

P = Personal

Take the time to understand what motivates your employees so that your reinforcement is personal and meaningful (behavioral assessment tools can be a helpful guide). For example, some people love the spotlight — nothing is greater than being recognized in public – but others may find public accolades embarrassing and uncomfortable. Frequency counts as well — some employees need positive reinforcement on a regular basis, whereas others would consider that inauthentic.

O = Outcome Focused

Be very clear with yourself and others what outcome you’re reinforcing. For instance, if you notice that an employee has been working long hours, do you need to reinforce the fact that she’s staying extra hours, or that she’s completing a project she’d committed to having done at a certain time?  If you compliment someone for speaking up in a meeting, are you complimenting him on his idea or on his courage to address a sensitive topic?  Focus on the behavior you want to encourage.

S = Specific

A general compliment makes an employee feel good, but a specific compliment can make the employee feel good AND identify what “good” looks like for future expectations.  The more specific you are, the more valuable your feedback:

Specific Is better than general
“Your summary is direct and clearly identifies the 3 primary issues” “Good summary”
“Thank you for completing this on time even though you encountered some unexpected obstacles” “I appreciate you getting this to me”
“You did an excellent job of handling that employee issue in a manner that was both respectful and direct” “Great job talking to him.”

I = Immediate

As with all kinds of reinforcement, don’t wait — time dilutes positive reinforcement.

T = Truthful

Positive reinforcement is NOT happy talk. It is honest, genuine, and helpful feedback delivered with good intention. A lack of authenticity is as clear as the neon lights of Las Vegas. Be honest in your words and intent – if your feedback isn’t genuine, it’s a hard journey to gain back lost trust.

I = Identify steps

We all change our behavior changes in small steps, so recognize an employee’s small step and tie it to the larger outcome. For instance, take note of a chronically late employee who arrives on time two days in a row, a person terrified by public speaking who gives a 5-minute presentation to the team, or a typically negative person who gives a compliment.

V = Valuable consequences

Be careful when using rewards to motivate behavior. A reward CAN be effective if it is small and non-monetary such as recognition, a kind word from the boss, an unexpected flower on your desk. However, fancy prizes and material gain can backfire by undermining a person’s intrinsic motivation toward the activity, or sending the message that the employee is a cog in a machine that must be goaded into action. That type of reward also has the danger of fostering short- term thinking, stifling creativity or even becoming addictive.

Instead, the reward should be small, appropriate to the person, and free or inexpensive.

E = Engage respectfully

Be careful and mindful in your practice of positive reinforcement – your role is not parental, e.g. “I’m so proud of you.”  Employees and co-workers aren’t children – they deserve professional and respectful praise.

Unintentional  responses also creep into this category of respect. If you praise someone for a “brilliant idea” in a meeting and but don’t take action afterward (even if that action is to decide to shelve the idea for a legitimate reason), then the insincerity itself is disrespectful.


Positive reinforcement is fun. It’s effective. It’s contagious. Learn how to use it and enjoy the rewards!

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