Positive Reinforcement: Maximizing Performance

Behaviors produce one of four consequences, two that diminish and two that increase the frequency of the behavior they follow. Punishment and extinction make behaviors go away; negative and positive reinforcement make behaviors increase.

RECAP. At home, you might provide punishment to your kids by sending them to bed early, grounding them, taking away TV or computer privileges, giving them extra chores or spanking them. At work, you might punish employees by giving them crap hours, making them stay late, docking their pay, ridiculing them or even firing them. Note that I’m not saying that any of the above examples are good, wholesome or right; however, they are all examples of punishments that can be considered effective as punishments if they make behaviors go away.

At home, you provide extinction to the behavior of your children by ignoring them when they throw a tantrum or interrupt you. Sometimes you accidentally ignore them when you don’t pay attention to the good things that they do like clean their rooms or take initiative to act without being told. Under both types of extinction, behaviors that are ignored tend to go away.

Once a behavior meets with extinction or punishment, the performer usually falls under negative reinforcement where he or she improves…to a point. If your hope is to stop an employee from arriving late to work, your punishment may very well encourage increased time management skills. So if you want the employee in the office and ready to work at 8:00 am, you will have the employee in the office at 8:00 am under negative reinforcement. Just don’t expect the employee to show up at 7:00. Nope. He or she will show up just in time to avoid future punishment.


Positive reinforcement (R+) is a different animal. Under R+, a person gets what he or she wants or likes. You see this all of the time. Here’s a short list of examples:

  • Your boss thanks you for the leadership you showed on a project you managed for a team in a different division. He lets you know that you’ve been nominated for a cash bonus for your efforts and your results. Your boss gave you some serious R+. The next time you are asked to work in a cross-functional team, you jump at the chance hoping for additional rewards or recognition.
  • You call your dog, and he wags his tail and comes to you. The dog gave you positive reinforcement. If you pet the dog or give it attention, you return it. Next time, the dog is more likely to come to you, and you are more likely to pet the dog when he does.
  • Your child brings home an A on a spelling test and you kiss her and put it on the fridge. Your response to her A, a kiss and public display on the fridge, is R+ for her bringing home the paper.  She will likely bring home more A papers.
  • You walk into a dark room and flip the switch. The light comes on and you find what you’re looking for without a hassle. The light turning on is R+ for your flipping the switch. Next time you enter a dark room, you will flip the switch to bring on the light.

But R+ not only improves the strength of behaviors but also maximizing them.

Years ago, I had a dog named Bruno, a four-pound Yorkshire Terrier. He was a spunky little guy. One day, Bruno decided to go on a bear hunt. So, like all good hunters, he masked his scent to become a more effective predator. In his case, he rolled in a pile of bear feces. You might rightfully assume that I was not pleased with his behavior. For as long as I can remember I practiced a NO-BEAR-CRAP-IN-THE-HOUSE policy, and now I had a dog covered in scat from head to toe.

I called Bruno in a voice that registered my displeasure. My tone may have sounded like the bowels of Hell had opened up. My voice got Bruno’s attention. He was small, but that dog was smart enough to sense that he might be the source of my discontent. So he came to me. Slowly.




Recap: Bruno rolled in bear poop. I yelled: PUNISHMENT. I redirected by saying something like “Get your @#$%*^!@ butt over here NOW!” Bruno complied: NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT. After he got what he didn’t want–the punishment of being yelled at–he obeyed me just enough to avoid another yell. He came. But he didn’t break any land-speed records doing it.

Now take the same dog a day later. I come home from work and enter the house. He is behind a little doggie gate, and he sees me. His ears are straight up in the air. His head is tilted. His eyes are shining and bright. His stump of  tail is swinging through the air so quickly that it makes a buzzing sound. And he is jumping in the air, jumping so high that his whole body clears the 3-foot height of the gate. He doesn’t jump over yet because he hasn’t been given approval.

Finally, from across the room I say “Come here!”

In a flash, Bruno clears the gate, crosses the remaining steps to me in a flash of smoke and jumps into my arms as I bend my legs to form a landing pad for him!

The day before when I called crap-covered Bruno, he came to me. Slow. Ly. He came just quickly enough to avoid being yelled at again. But the next day when I called him, when Bruno wanted to come because he liked to see me, he ran like the wind.

The gap between how little someone can do without getting in trouble and how much someone can accomplish when internally and positively motivated is called discretionary effort. But I call it the Bruno Effect.

If you want others to want your leadership, be known as one who delivers plenty of R+. Be the light. When you are the light for others, they will astound you with how well they can perform. You may be amazed at what they can achieve when the want to be a superstar. And one of the side benefits is that you will feel like a positive leader instead of the old-school image of the teaching nun with a ruler and a clipboard.


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