Positive Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement


Taking the “pat on the back” a step further can improve morale and productivity.

The fire service has traditionally overlooked and underused A one of the most powerful motivational tools for personnel at its disposal —positive reinforcement.

This little-used behavioral approach offers the modern fire administrator and fire officer almost unlimited potential for enhancing employee morale and work motivation. Fire service productivity has the potential to be dramatically increased, at little or no cost, through the proper implementation of a positive reinforcement program.

The fire service hasn’t used positive reinforcement extensively in the past. Traditionally, the fire service has punished its employees for work violations such as absenteeism, tardiness, neglectful vehicle accidents, wrongful dispatching or response routing, negligent decision-making, and deficient work performance. It has also recognized and rewarded the heroic, lifesaving efforts of employees who, in many cases, were in the right place at the right time to do their sworn duty.

The rewarding of heroic effort is quite proper — make no mistake about that —but when fire officials fail to recognize the routine, dayto-day accomplishments of employees, they are setting the stage for lowered morale and negative behavioral response in most employees. Behavior the department values and yet takes for granted will deteriorate. Absenteeism and tardiness will remain at unacceptable levels. Vehicle accidents will continue at a costly rate. And general organizational performance will lack the quality fire service leaders would like. The answer to promoting a higher level of organizational performance lies in positive reinforcement, a behavioral modification approach promoted by B.F. Skinner, a noted behavioral psychologist.

Three approaches

Individual behavior is shaped by the consequences that follow it: If behavior is ignored or punished, it tends to decrease or cease. If it’s positively reinforced (rewarded), it tends to increase or persist. Thus, organizations may employ three approaches to shaping an employee’s behavior.

If the employee’s behavior is positive, the organization may positively reinforce the behavior through pay incentives, formal recognition (an award or a day off, for example), or informal recognition (a supervisory pat on the back).

If the employee’s behavior is negative, the organization may punish the employee by suspension, written reprimand, reassignment, transfer, or termination.

Or the organization may react in a neutral manner or negatively reinforce the behavior by doing nothing in reaction to the negative act.

Generally, the main approach used in organizations is to punish the negative behavior of employees while allowing positive behavior to go unrecognized and unrein forced.

Don’t assume that positive reinforcement condemns the use of employee punishment. Such sanctions must be employed effectively in order to properly control employee behavior. However, punishment, in and of itself, doesn’t stimulate an employee to contribute creatively to the goals of the organization. Punishment merely causes the employee to delay the negative behavior temporarily. In many cases, punishment has a minimal delaying effect.

Negative reinforcement, rather than punishment, tends to have more effect on negative employee behavior. However, negative reinforcement—simply not recognizing, or ignoring, the employee’s negative behavior—is totally dependent on the existence of a positive reinforcement effort within the organization. For example, if employees receive regular, formal recognition among their peers for being at work on time, then the absence of such recognition will negatively reinforce their behavior. That is, if an employee was tardy one or more times during the last rating period, that person wouldn’t receive the normal recognition afforded to employees who were always on time for work. The employee, in search for continued recognition, will seek to conform to the organizational standard of being at work on time.

Positive reinforcement is the means by which organizations can generate positive employee behavior and enhance productivity. To be most effective, positive reinforcement should not be tied directly to pay or other monetary incentives. Programs based on pay incentives can become very costly for the fire department, and do not answer employees’ needs for esteem, recognition, and self-actualization. Responding to these needs is more effective in the long run.

Because of this, the vital element of positive reinforcement is recognition—recognition among peer employees for doing the job properly and well. This kind of positive reinforcement can and should be administered in two forms—formal and informal.

Informal positive reinforcement

The work environment in America and especially in the fire service is based on a clearly defined supervisor/subordinate relationship that most workers accept. Subordinate workers generally respect and, in many cases, admire their supervisors. This means the supervisor can use positive reinforcement to good advantage because the employee values the supervisor’s opinion. The supervisor merely has to notice the employee doing something right and openly recognize that behavior in the midst of the employee’s peers.

In other words, the supervisor should tell the employee that he’s done a good job and that the supervisor appreciates it. The commendation can be enhanced by citing specific examples of how the behavior was pleasing, such as, “You not only completed your required number of inspections, but you took the time to show genuine courtesy to the owners of the buildings.”

By carrying out this informal, open “pat on the back,” the supervisor has reinforced the correct behavior in the presence of those the employee sincerely seeks to impress: the supervisor and peers. Additionally, the supervisor has clearly communicated to the other employees what type of behavior is desired.

Most employees will, in turn, seek to attain the level of performance that will result in similar recognition by the supervisor.

Of course, the supervisors must seek to maintain a genuine sincerity in recognizing these routine sorts of employee behaviors, or employees will consider them “fake” in their leadership approach. But forthright supervisors who earnestly desire to apply their skills toward the positive development of employees should be able to communicate this reinforcement in an honest manner.

Formal positive reinforcement

Formal positive reinforcement programs use visible, documented awards to provide ongoing evidence of the employee’s achievement. Awards programs such as those used by fire departments in New York and other cities are types of positive reinforcement efforts.

Comprehensive formal positive reinforcement programs should encompass three elements: First, the recognition should occur at regular intervals. Second, the recognition should occur in the presence of the employee’s peers. If the organization is large, the recognition should be communicated throughout, among the employee’s other, remotely located peers. Third, if the recognition is noted through a certificate, ribbon, or medal, such certification should be prominently displayed within the peer working environment. It’s most important that the employee and other workers regularly see the evidence of the achievement. They’ll know that good work habits don’t go unrecognized.

The American military has used formal recognition for decades, awarding ribbons and medals not only for achievement beyond the call of duty, but for routine, expected achievement. This doesn’t mean that firefighters should eventually look like five-star generals with ribbons extending to their shoulder blades. However, ribbon awards for meeting departmental standards regarding timeliness, attendance, and safe driving would regularly reinforce the employee who does a good job. A certificate prominently displayed within the workplace would achieve the same result. The lack of a particular ribbon or certificate would negatively reinforce the employee who, because of negative behavior, didn’t deserve the award.

Using positive reinforcement

To develop a positive reinforcement program, fire administrators should follow these five guidelines, according to Kenneth N. Wexley and Gary A. Yukl, authors of Organizational Behavior and Personnel Psychology:

  1. Determine and specify what behavior is correct or desired.
  2. Develop formal awards for behaviors worthy of regular organizational recognition.
  3. Positively reinforce correct behavior.
  4. Ignore undesired or incorrect behavior rather than punishing it, unless there are serious consequences to such behavior.
  5. Avoid excessive delay in reinforcement of correct behavior so that the behavior-reward connection is evident.

Positive reinforcement programs offer, potentially, the most cost-effective way in which the fire service can increase its productive service efforts. The programs cost very little, yet they address one of the most important motivational desires of employees—that for recognition.

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