THE OFFICE is one of the few TV shows that I watch regularly. The setting, Dunder Mifflin, is fictitious, yet familiar. The writing is crisp. The actors are first-rate. The filming is creative. But I watch it for one reason alone: the character, Michael Scott.
What can be learned from him?
Positive Reinforcement (R+) is effective where holiday celebrations fail.
Michael Scott is big on celebrations. Every year he forces the office to celebrate Christmas with a “secret Santa”, Halloween with full costumes, and birthdays with cake and streamers. Those can be nice things for a manager to do for others. Done well, they can build commitment and a spirit of togetherness.
Participation at those holiday celebrations is contingent on being employed at Dunder Mifflin instead of being linked to any sort of performance or behavior. So while it’s nice, those celebrations don’t improve performance.
Positive reinforcement (R+) is the delivery of something pleasant or rewarding immediately following a behavior. It makes that behavior more likely to occur in the future. To reward performance at work, an effective leader delivers R+ to an employee immediately after the employee does something worthy of reinforcement.
Here are some examples of how Michael could deliver R+ using characters from THE OFFICE:
- Dwight makes a huge sales call so Michael takes him out for lunch. After lunch, Dwight is so happy after spending one-on-one time with Michael, he makes several cold calls and closes another big deal.
- Pam draws a new Dunder Mifflin corporate logo on her own time and shows it to Michael. He is so impressed with Pam’s work, he says that he wants to show it to his boss. Pam is so thrilled that she asks if she can make a few additional changes at home that night and bring him a final version in the morning.
- Angela finds that Michael cheated himself out of $200 on his last expense report. Angela corrects it, and tells Michael. He is so thrilled to get more money back that he buys Angela a cat figurine as a “thank you”. Angela smiles slightly, and she goes over the next expense report with an eye to catch any error that may exist.
Aren’t “The Dundies” Positive Reinforcement?
Michael has an annual celebration called The Dundies that looks a little bit like positive reinforcement. But is it? Here are some things that Michael “celebrates” at these ceremonies:
- Phyllis – Busiest Beaver award (mislabeled to say something crass)
- Ryan – Hottest in the Office award
- Kevin – Don’t Go in There After Me award (shaped like a squatting figure)
- Pam – Whitest Sneakers award
Are any of those things worthy of recognition at work? Would it benefit an organization if these employees maintained the “behavior” for which they were recognized? Would you really pay these folks for these noted accomplishments? No. These awards are not contingent upon performance. They are just a way for Michael to be the center of attention.
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OK – love this post! Here’s a semi-related video from TED about how positive reinforcement for task-based performance is worthless:
If I ever work for you, will you please take me to Hooters when I land a big account? Thanks 😉