One of the best ways to motivate a team and produce phenomenal results in the workplace is by using positive reinforcement. When positive reinforcement is used, you focus less on what people are doing wrong and more on what they’re doing right. By rewarding and praising your team every time they do a good job, you’ll be able to condition them into doing well all the time.

Reinforcement in Practice

In 2006, a branch manager of a Sears Department Store in Pennsylvania was having a difficult time getting his staff to prompt customers to apply for Sears credit cards. Customers had continually said “No,” whenever asked, and this negative reinforcement had resulted in the employees no longer trying.

The branch manager decided to try a different approach using reinforcement methods to motivate employees. He offered his employees a bonus on their paycheck for every credit card application processed.  Every 90 days, the employee with the most submitted applications would be recognized at work and receive a gift card.

In addition to the positive reinforcement, he also made it clear any employee who did not submit at least five applications a month would be required to complete training to improve their productivity. While his employees were motivated by the positive reinforcements, the training worked to ensure no employee was allowed to slack off. As a result, the Sears store became the number one store for credit card applications in the state.

Using Positive Reinforcement

The manager in this case study created an entire rewards system for his employees. While this is a great thing to do, positive reinforcement doesn’t always have to be on such a large scale. A simple pat on the back or thank-you note serves as an everyday form of positive reinforcement. 

When you use positive reinforcement, be specific about what exactly the individual did to please you. Avoid general statements like, “You’re such a hard worker,” and focus on the specifics like, “Thank you for doing a great job on that assignment and getting it in on time.” 

Remember, every time you need to address a problem, positive reinforcement can still be used. For example, “Sue, you always do an excellent job on your assignments, and I commend you for going to school at night for your dental assistant degree. But in the future, please try to turn your work in on time.”

Notes to Keep in Mind

While using positive reinforcement, remember to avoid favoritism. If one team member seems to be getting constant attention, the others will feel discouraged and their morale and productivity will suffer. Try to focus on rewarding your team as equally as possible. Also, try not to over-do the positives. While people love to be appreciated, if you walk around saying “Great job!” all day long, it will lose all meaning.

Positive reinforcement is not a replacement for proper disciplinary actions in the workplace. It’s important to focus on your team’s positive accomplishments, but that doesn’t mean ignoring inappropriate behavior. A great balance of positive reinforcement with leadership is what will create an exemplary workplace.