P is for Positive Reinforcement

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“During my career I have led many change programmes in organisations,” said one leader.

“Early on I learned that it does not work to simply say to people: ‘You have permission to …’

“They need to be shown what good looks like and continually encouraged to deliver these kinds of results.

“People need to see the new ways are rewarded. Otherwise they just nod and, after a while, revert back to their old habits.”

The old saying is that: “What gets measured gets done.” Another rule is that: “What gets rewarded is more likely to get done.”

Looking back, can you recall a time when you used positive reinforcement in an encouraging way?

You may have been encouraging a person or team to build on their strengths, develop a skill, repeat a successful pattern or whatever.

What did you do right then to use positive reinforcement? What were the principles you followed?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to describe your own experiences of positive reinforcement.

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Positive Reinforcement As A
Way Of Building Positive Cultures

Positive reinforcement plays a key part in building a positive culture. Why use this approach?

People are used to following certain principles – almost like a programme – in their lives and work. They then translate these principles into behaviours.

People can sometimes embark on a new way of doing things, but then fall back into old habits. They may be aiming to follow a new diet, develop a fresh working pattern, build a positive culture or whatever.

This happens in organisations when a new leader arrives. The leader announces that things are going to be different and people try out the new approach. After a while, however, some people revert back to the old ways.

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Imagine that you aim to build a positive culture in an organisation.

How can you encourage people to follow certain principles? One approach is to start by giving people the big picture. It can be useful:

To describe the organisation’s purpose.

To describe the principles that people can follow – including the required professional standards – to achieve the purpose.

To describe the positive benefits – to the various stakeholders – of achieving the purpose.

You can then provide positive reinforcement. Before doing that, however, it can be useful to bear in mind the following approach.

Positive Reinforcement Works Best
When People Believe In The Principles

This sounds obvious, but it is often ignored. Many organisations tell people the principles they should follow, but sometimes this fails to work.

They are using an outside-in approach. Sometimes this works, but it often fails to produce sustainable results. Why?

People need to feel an emotional connection with the principles. They need to believe these in their guts. They also need to believe that following the principles will work.

How to make this happen? One way is to use the organic approach. This is based on the beliefs that:

People already have within them a positive history of success.

People already have strengths and successful patterns that they can develop.

People can develop by being helped to build on these strengths and successful patterns – plus add other skills – on the way to achieving success.

This approach can work in several ways. One is to use Appreciative Inquiry. This encourages people:

To clarify when they have performed brilliantly in the past.

To clarify the principles they followed to perform brilliantly.

To clarify how they can follow these principles to perform brilliantly in the future.

This approach is particularly effective when encouraging people to explore the principles they want to follow in the future. These can then become the basis for their future work.

“That sounds fine,” somebody may say.

“But what if you have already settled on the principles that it will be important for people to follow in order to do good work?

“How can you involve people in getting some ownership of these principles?”

Let’s explore how to make this happen. Imagine that one of the key principles you would like people to follow is for them to:

Take Responsibility

You can begin by gathering people together and explaining the rationale behind the principle. If possible, give positive examples of when people in the organisation have taken responsibility. You can then invite people:

To clarify the specific times when they have taken responsibility and produced positive results.

To clarify the things they did right then to take responsibility and deliver positive results.

To clarify how they want to take responsibility in the future and produce positive results.

People need to feel in their guts that they have followed the principle and it has worked. They also need to believe that following it in the future will produce success – both for themselves and for their organisation.

Good organisations describe the principles that people can follow to achieve the goals. They make the intellectual case for following such strategies. They also make sure, however, that people have an emotional connection to the principles.

Positive Reinforcement In Action

Let’s assume that people believe in the principles. There are many ways to encourage people to continue to follow these. Some of the approaches are described below.

Building A Team That Develops Ways To
Encourage People To Follow The Principles

You can build a team of volunteers who take ownership for developing the positive reinforcement. They can produce and implement the specific ways of making this happen.

It can be useful to set a time frame for this team, such as them doing it for six months. They can then see it as a project, rather than a long process.

You can provide support that enables them:

To clarify the real results they want to achieve from the project and clarify the picture of success.

To clarify the key strategies for achieving the picture of success.

To get the support they need to implement these strategies and achieve the picture of success.

You can also do the following things as part of the project or as ways of complementing it.

Keep Sharing Success Stories

Good organisations frequently show people what good looks like. One approach is to continually produce success stories.

You can highlight when people have followed certain principles to deliver great customer service, solve a problem, work well together or whatever. You can publish these stories internally and, when appropriate, externally.

It is vital to have a mission holder, however, who is accountable for ensuring the stories are collected, written and published. They can, of course, hire somebody to do the actual writing if necessary.

There are many formats for producing such stories. Below is one approach.

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Keep Giving Positive Feedback
and Positive Alternatives

People like encouragement. They also like to be given positive alternatives when things go wrong.

Great leaders give people specific encouragement. They highlight the specific things that people did right to perform fine work. They reward the behaviour they want repeated.

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Such leaders also protect the culture if the quality standards are comprised. They often prepare their script, however, before giving such messages to people. They may then say something like:

“Looking to the future regarding this kind of work, it is important that we deliver high professional standards.

“The actual words we would like to hear people – such as our customers, colleagues or other stakeholders – saying about our work are, for example:




“Looking to the future, let me know if there are any kinds of support you would like to deliver these professional standards and ensure we achieve success.”

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There are many ways of encouraging people to follow certain principles. If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to use positive reinforcement in an encouraging way.

Describe the specific things you can do to use positive reinforcement in an encouraging way in that situation.

Describe the specific benefits of using this approach in that situation.

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