Leveraging reinforcement theory will connect the action to the reward and bolster your firm’s morale and cultural identity.
A 2013 Gallup survey found that only 13 percent of surveyed employees worldwide identify as “engaged” at work while 63 percent listed “not engaged” and a startling 24 percent listed “actively disengaged.” Motivating yourself and others is the most fundamental and important role of leadership and is even more critical in our increasingly fast-paced and attention-demanding world. If leadership is defined as influencing others to facilitate change and serves as the compass and vision, motivation is the catalyst toward achieving that vision and is the force actively propelling that movement forward.
Motivation is also a resource allocation process used to direct people toward expending time and energy on desired behaviors. Metadata on work performance indicates that performance is equal to effort multiplied by ability and divided by situational constraints. This evidence-based equation depicts effort as equally important to ability; while ability is largely up to the individual, a leader can leverage motivation to drastically increase effort and performance. Both intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) motivators are important in guiding and empowering employees to feel more fulfilled and boost performance, but this article focuses exclusively on extrinsically motivating factors.
Reinforcement theory. In terms of motivation, reactionary behavior is a direct function of consequences, so efforts and behaviors can be influenced by controlling those consequences. In other words, what is endorsed and emphasized extrinsically is what unconsciously guides and informs future behaviors. This often happens at an inadvertent level to both managers and employees who unknowingly solidify these behaviors . While this reinforcement theory sounds simple, it is very easy to unintentionally recognize the wrong behaviors, particularly if they are more measurable or visible than what you are actually trying to emphasize.
For example, a manager vocally praises an employee for working over the weekend to meet a deadline, all too common in the AEC industry. While the manager’s intentions were simply to show appreciation for the hard work and dedication shown by the employee, the lasting effect is recognition of an undesired behavior (working excessively long hours). This mismatch of desired behavior (efficient work) versus emphasized behavior (working overtime) can be seen in other settings such as the recognition and emphasis placed on grades instead of actual learning or the importance placed on speed and project count versus quality. To effectively motivate and steer behavioral patterns successfully, there must be a direct and intentional link between the consequence and the targeted behavior.
The role of punishment in reinforcement theory. Punishment, on the other hand, can also be used as an effective motivational practice to limit undesired behaviors, but it comes with risks. The following criteria must be met for punishment to be productive:
- Corrective action must be immediate or continuous. The transgressor must be able to clearly establish the link between the punishment and the undesired behavior.
- It must be consistent. Not only does this mean that a reliable punishment schedule must be set for your team, but other groups within the firm must all abide by the same standards.
- The repercussions must fit the transgression. No suspension without pay for someone who forgot to refill the coffee pot.
- It must be continually monitored. If people discover that the system is inconsistent or has loopholes, the effectiveness plummets.
- The transgression and punishment must include an alternative behavior path. Clearly answer the question, “What would you have done differently next time?”
Punishment can be risky to implement in motivational practices, but if these five guidelines are followed, it can be effective in mitigating unwanted behaviors.
Putting it to use. The first step toward motivating individuals is to set the behavioral patterns that you desire to change then determine a reinforcement schedule to effectively motivate those behaviors. Always analyze both current and desired patterns first before trying to determine how to motivate as it is impossible to motivate for something that you do not know yourself. This is both the most important and overlooked step of effective motivation.
Always motivate for the intended behavior. While good intentions may lead a manager to praise an employee for taking on additional workload above their capacity, this subconsciously sets the expectation that this behavior is desired, and others will perceive that behavior as beneficial to their career. Through examining what the actual desired behavior is instead of the highly visible behavior, a reinforcement schedule can better endorse and motivate employees to your preferred outcomes.
Say, for instance, that better employee efficiency is desired. First, determine what efficiency means to the target role, and then quantify it including expectations like target net service revenue, expended time or cost expectations, or quality expectations. Recognize individuals meeting the indicated constraints within the targeted time frames to actually reinforce the behavior you desire. Do not submit to the managerial pitfall of rewarding for A while hoping for B. By examining target behaviors as well as accountability and motivational expectations, clear and direct reinforcement schedules can be used to effectively influence the efforts and actions of your team.
Motivating yourself as well as your employees is critical to maintaining high performance and personal fulfillment. Leveraging reinforcement theory to recognize the truly desired behaviors from your employees will not only boost individual performance but also connect the action to the reward and bolster your firm’s morale and cultural identity.
Mitchell Shope is a senior project engineer with JQ Engineering in Dallas, Texas. He holds a master of engineering degree from MIT in structural engineering and an MBA from the University of Texas. Contact him at email@example.com.Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter!