If the environment is complementary to established behaviour, then such behaviour is positively reinforced. On the other hand, if environment is hostile to the values and skills of the worker, then negative reactions take place. Second, human behaviour is subject to “cause and effect” phenomenon so that effects can be predicted on the basis of established causes and that behaviour can be changed by manipulating the consequences.
Based on the work of B. F. Skinner, operant conditioning is based on a simple “law of effect” meaning that behaviour is a function of its consequences. Reinforcement theory suggests that behaviour or job performance is not a function of internal state of mind (such as needs), feelings, emotions or perceptions but is keyed to the nature of the outcome of such behaviour.
The consequences of a given behaviour could determine whether the same behaviour is likely to occur in the future or not. Based upon this direct relationship between behaviour and its consequences, management can study and identify this relationship and try to modify and control behaviour by manipulating consequences.
Reinforcement is the process by which certain types of behaviours are strengthened. Thus a “reinforcer” is any stimuli that cause certain behaviour to be repeated or inhibited. Organizations are interested in reinforcing the desirable behaviour and eliminating undesirable behaviour among workers.
By introducing some reinforcers, organizations can maintain or increase the probability of such behaviours as quality oriented performance, objective decision making, high level of attendance and punctuality and so on. Thus, these reinforcers work as behaviour modifiers.
There are four reinforcement strategies:
Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, extinction and punishment. The first two reinforcers seek to encourage desirable behaviour by different approaches. The remaining two reinforcers seek to discourage undesirable behaviour. These are shown in the following diagram.
i. Positive reinforcement:
A positive reinforcement is a reward for a desired behaviour. The reward should be sufficiently powerful and durable so that it increases the probability of occurrence of desirable behaviour.
Financial incentive is probably the most powerful reinforcer for positive behaviour, because money can be used for a number of other resources. However, some other positive reinforcers are participative decision making, recognition for a job well done, challenging tasks, higher responsibility, and freedom to decide how the job is to be done and so on.
Since all individuals have different motivations for performance, it is important that the positive reinforcers be individually tailored so that the reinforcer is valued by the employees.
ii. Negative reinforcement:
Negative reinforcement is the removal of an unpleasant consequence following a desired behaviour’. This is also known as “avoidance learning”, since the individual learns how to avoid unpleasant consequences. For example, a manager may like his subordinates to dress in a business suit when they come to work and may criticize individuals who dress casually.
However, this criticism stops when such individuals wear business suits to work. Thus to avoid criticism, the employees may dress well. Similarly, students work hard, write term papers and do their homework on time to avoid the consequence of failure in the exams.
Extinction is the withdrawal of the positive reward and removal of all reinforcements following an undesirable behaviour. For example, if a student in the class is highly mischievous and disturbs the class, he is probably asking for attention. If this attention is given to him, he will continue to exhibit that behaviour.
However, if he is continuously ignored and not recognized, then such undesirable behaviour will vanish over a period of time. To such a student, attention is a positive reinforcement and when this reinforcement is withheld from him; his disturbing behaviour is expected to decrease in frequency and eventually will disappear.
Punishment is the administration of negative consequences following an undesirable behaviour. The purpose is to decrease the odds of the undesirable behaviour being repeated. According to B.F. Skinner, punishment is still the most common technique of behavioural control in today’s life.
When a child misbehaves, he is spanked. If a worker does not behave according to the way the organization wants him to behave, he is fired. If a person does not behave as the society or law wants him to behave, he is ridiculed or ignored or he is punished by arrest and jail. All religions threaten punishment in the life hereafter, if a person does not behave according to God’s will and religious guidelines.
Which type of reinforcement is more appropriate to use? According to research conducted by Blanchard and Johnson, most managers prefer positive reinforcement rather than the use of punishment. Such a manager achieves performance improvement without generating the fear, suspicion and resentment that are often the result of using punishment in the work place.