Shaping a managerial tool

Managers will be concerned with teaching employees to behave in ways that most benefit the organization. Learning takes place on the job as well as prior to it. When we attempt to mold individuals by guiding their learning in graduated steps, we are shaping behavior.

Consider the situation in which an employee’s behavior is significantly different from that sought by management. If the management rewarded the individual only when he or she showed desirable responses, there might be very little reinforcement taking place. On such a case, shaping offers a logical approach toward achieving the desired behavior.

We shape behavior by systematically reinforcing each successive step that moves the individual closer to the desired response. If an employee who has chronically been a half-hour late for work comes in only 20 minutes late, we can reinforce that improvement.
Reinforcement would increase as responses more closely approximated the desired behavior.

Methods of Shaping Behavior:

There are four ways in which to shape behavior: through positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction.

Following a response with something pleasant is called positive reinforcement. This would describe, for instance, the boss who praises an employee for a job well done. Following a response by the termination or withdrawal of something unpleasant is called negative reinforcement. If your college instructor asks a question and you don’t know the answer, looking through your lecture notes is likely to preclude your being called on. This is a negative reinforcement because you have learned that looking busily through your notes prevents the instructor from calling on you. Punishment is causing an unpleasant condition in an unpleasant condition in an attempt to eliminate an undesirable behavior. Giving an employee a two-day suspension from work without pay for showing up drunk is an example of punishment. Eliminating any reinforcement that is maintaining a behavior is called extinction. When the behavior is not reinforced, it tends to be gradually extinguished. College instructors who wish to discourage students from asking questions in class can eliminate this behavior in their students by ignoring those who raise their hands to ask questions. Hand-raising will become extinct when it is invariably met with an absence of reinforcement.

Both positive and negative reinforcement result in learning. They strengthen a response and increase the probability of repetition. In the preceding illustration, praise strengthens and increases the behavior if doing a good job because praise is desired. The behavior of “looking busy” is similarly strengthened and increased by its terminating the undesirable consequences of being called on by the teacher. However, both punishment and extinction weaken behavior and tend to decrease its subsequent frequency.

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