New Manager

A magic formula for motivation

C Mahalingam | Updated on October 08, 2014

5 parts positive, 1 part corrective is the ideal reinforcement balance

One of the most elusive challenges for leaders revolves around getting people to be enthused and energised on a continuous basis. Engaging and energising people occasionally is not difficult, but ensuring such a climate as ‘business as usual’ is proving evasive.

Reasons why positive reinforcement is missing:

Leaders are keen to address this issue to find some possibilities. There are however sufficient clues available in the field of behavioural sciences to draw from. The power of positive reinforcement is one of them. Interestingly, everyday interactions between managers and their team offer significant moments to practice this. In a recent workshop on “high performance culture and how this creates business value” facilitated by the author in Bangalore, this issue was debated. Most of the participants agreed that the following three reasons were possibly why managers do not leverage the power of positive reinforcement for drawing the best out of people: (a) growing up with a belief that praising people will spoil them; (b) praise and you have invited another problem of them expecting a raise or promotion, so why risk praising; and (b) what is the need to praise as we hired people for doing a good job any way!

More often than not, many of these beliefs that govern how managers lead and inspire their teams may actually operate at their subconscious levels. Net effect is that employees do not get sufficient positive strokes to feel energised.

Catching people doing things wrong seems the norm:

In contrast, organisations train managers to pull up people when something does not go well. In a nutshell, managers seem to be busy “catching people doing things wrong more often than catching them doing things right!” Harvard professor BF Skinner devoted several decades of his research into the area of reinforcement and concluded that behaviours that are rewarded get reinforced. We have problem simply implementing this wisdom. It is important to raise the bar of performance expectations so people stretch themselves for superior performance. the chances of working professionals setting higher standards of excellence are facilitated by positive reinforcement at every stage.

Is there a magic ratio for positive reinforcement?

The answer is an emphatic yes. As early as in 1972, psychologists Robert and Evelyn Kirkhart studied the effect of positive reinforcement on children’s behaviour and reported that children in classrooms thrived when the ratio of the teachers’ feedback to the children was five parts positive and one part corrective. When this ratio deteriorated to 2:1, the children’s attitude became despairing. Professor John Gottman carried out research in the 1990s on married couples and confirmed that when it came to happy marriages, there was the same ratio at work! He noted that marriages were significantly more stable if there were five times as many positive feelings and interactions between the husband and wife as there were negative. He went on to term the five parts positive to one part corrective as the “magic ratio.”

Where do we go from here?

There is enough evidence that focusing on positive reinforcement more often than negative or even corrective feedback is several times more rewarding. This should counter the three beliefs we discussed earlier that often come in the way of managers delivering praise and recognition. Whether it is a project review or performance appraisal discussions, managers have a reliable advice to benefit from. And that is the magic ratio for motivating people. As much as the key to superior performance may well lie within the individuals, the secret to getting them to use the key lies with us as managers.

The writer is Executive Coach and HR Advisor to xorporates. He is also a visiting professor with several IIMs

Published on October 08, 2014

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