negative reinforcement

Is Using Negative Reinforcement in The Workplace Always Bad?

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You get a promotion as a result of your great performance. You give a shout-out to your team to recognize the hard work that went into the completion of a project. This is positive reinforcement in action – rewarding desirable behaviors in the workplace. But what about negative reinforcement? Is it ever a good idea to rely on it at work or will it destroy the healthy culture you want to build? The short answer is, it depends on the context. 

What is negative reinforcement? 

To understand whether negative reinforcement at work can be used constructively, it’s important to wrap your head around what the term means. According to PsychCentral, both positive and negative reinforcement are learning and behavior management strategies. You learn to behave in a certain way to seek a reward (positive reinforcement) or to avoid an unpleasant consequence (negative reinforcement). As PsychCentral defines it, negative reinforcement means that “you adjust your behavior so that the unpleasant or negative ‘stimulus’ (experience) goes away.” 

Those concepts are often discussed in the context of parenting, but they apply to human behavior in general – it’s about what motivates your actions and reactions. You want to feel good and avoid feeling bad. You remember what makes you feel pleasant emotions and unpleasant ones and learn which actions to repeat and which ones to stay away from accordingly.  

Negative reinforcement at work

Keep in mind that negative reinforcement does not necessarily mean punishment. You probably experience it on a daily basis and even use it on yourself to be more productive. For example, you put things on your calendar to avoid the unpleasant effects of missing a deadline

As a leader though, you need to proceed with caution when aiming to reinforce certain behaviors in your team. That’s because of our tendency to amplify and remember negative events. Lucia Kanter St. Amour, an employment attorney, international workplace mediator and negotiation coach, and the author of “For the Forces of Good: The Superpower of Everyday Negotiation,” says that the brain has a negativity bias. 

“When you have a substandard experience at a restaurant, you’ll tell 10 friends about it. When you have a great restaurant experience, you’ll tell 3-4 friends. The brain feels negative feedback five times more powerfully than positive feedback. Inversely, that means that it takes five positive interactions to overcome one negative one,” she says.  

Based on this information, imagine how a single piece of negative feedback can make employees feel if it’s not balanced out by positive feedback loops. “In business, positive reinforcement is ideal. It is slow, steady, builds relationships of trust, and creates safe environments which promote creativity, growth, and development,” according to Katie Lorz, a mental health expert, educator, and psychotherapist. “On any given day, employees may receive positive reinforcement by way of: raises, perks, bonuses, benefits, and praise.” 

That being said, providing honest, ongoing feedback without sugarcoating things is part of creating an environment where people thrive. “Employees need to be made aware of areas where they are not meeting expectations,” says St. Amour. 

In that sense, negative reinforcement does come into play when it comes to discussing areas of improvement – people want to succeed and perform well, and they want to avoid underperforming. Knowing where you stand will drive you to move towards success and away from “failure.” 

St. Amour says that the way you provide feedback is key to counteract the negativity bias mentioned above. You’ll want to recognize positive contributions on a regular basis – even with things that people may not see as a big deal, such as praising punctuality or giving recognition to someone for being such a supportive coworker. Then, keep negative feedback focused on one or two things at a time. “A person can realistically and meaningfully work on just one or two new things at a time. Otherwise, it’s overwhelming, confusing, and paralyzing,” she adds. 

When to use negative reinforcement in the workplace 

Additionally, there is a time and place to enforce negative consequences in the workplace for the greater good – when “inaction can lead to disastrous consequences for the employee or business,” says Lorz. “Employees who are practicing illegal, unethical, or dangerous behaviors may need an elevating level of negative reinforcement to persuade them to change and protect the company from harm,” she says. If anyone is creating an unsafe environment, negative reinforcement is necessary. 

There are also times when negative reinforcement is counterproductive and can harm your culture. “I’ve seen too many corporations adopt the practice of being stingy with praise so that they always have an ‘out’ to terminate an employee. This is incredibly dehumanizing and discouraging,” according to St. Amour. “People need to be appreciated. It increases productivity, decreases turnover and improves workplace culture” 

The bottom line: Appreciate your people and use authentic positive reinforcement generously. Don’t be afraid of negative reinforcement when it’s truly necessary, and be mindful of how you deliver feedback.  

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