Positive reinforcement in the workplace is a simple concept: When people do things right, you should thank them; recognize them; reward them. Then they'll repeat the behavior. Their co-workers will want in on the action, and it will snowball from there.
Bills Sims Jr. trumpets the power of positive reinforcement in his book "Green Beans & Ice Cream," and he puts those concepts into action creating behavior-based recognition programs for corporate clients that include Ford (IW 500/8), General Motors (IW 500/5), Du Pont (IW 500/38) and Coca-Cola (IW 500/27).
Sims agrees that positive reinforcement is a simple theory, but he's quick to add that the reality of implementing it as a fundamental workforce strategy in a large manufacturing company is anything but simple, thanks to an entrenched set of management behaviors that fit under the rubric of human nature.
The reason that few workers are committed to their company's well-being and bottom line is because of the opposite-of-positive-reinforcement management system that Sims says every company uses to some degree -- a system he calls "Leave Alone/Zap."
"It's the default method of management for every supervisor on the planet," he says. "When people do things right, we leave them alone and say nothing. When they screw up, we zap them."
Sims says this management-by-fear method succeeds sometimes -- but only for short periods.
"Leave Alone/Zap will never produce lasting employee engagement," he says. "If you want high levels of employee commitment over the long term, you need a different management system. You need a program of positive reinforcement, coaching and leadership. And you need to be patient and committed to it. That's what drives high levels of engagement -- it's the only thing that drives it. People are starving for it, and they don't get it."