Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcement theory, associated with the psychologist B F Skinner and others, shows how the consequences of past behavior affect future actions in a cyclical learning process. This process may be expressed as follows:

Stimulus – Response – Consequences – Future Response:

On this view, the individual’s own voluntary behavior (response) to a situation or event (stimulus) is the cause of specific consequences. If those consequences are positive, the individual will in the future tend to have similar responses in similar situations. If those consequences are unpleasant, the individual will tend to change his or her behavior in order to avoid them. For example, people may be likely to obey the law and a manager’s legitimate instructions because they have learned at home and at school that disobedience leads to punishment. The other side of the coin is that people try to meet goals at work because they have learned that they stand a good chance of being rewarded. This is known as the law of effect. Reinforcement theory involves people’s memory of past stimulus response – consequences experiences. According to reinforcement theory, a person is motivated when he or she responds to stimuli in consistent patterns of behavior over time. Reinforcement theory, like expectancy theory, is a way to link motivation and behaviors. At Wal-Mart, executives’ willingness to act on associates’ suggestions serves as reinforcement that can then effect elicit further suggestions from associates. Thus making suggestions is a reinforced behavior.

Behavior Modification: Behavior modification uses reinforcement theory to change human behavior. Thus, a manager who wishes to change employee behavior must change the consequences of that behavior. Someone who is frequently late, for example, might be motivated to come in on time (a behavior change) if the manager expresses strong approval for each on time or early appearance (change of consequences), rather than ignoring on-time arrival. Lateness may also be stopped by expressing strong disapproval of the late arrival time if the managers had previously been ignoring the late arrivals.

There are four common methods of behavior modification. In positive reinforcement, desirable behaviors are encouraged, or reinforced by positive consequences, such as a raise or praise. In avoidance learning, employees change their behavior to avoid unpleasant consequences, such as criticism or a poor evaluation. To stop a behavior, a manager can use extinction, the absence of reinforcement. Suppose a manager’s laxness at staff meetings has reinforced the employees’ behaviors of coming late to the meetings and wasting time making jokes. To stop this behavior, the manager could start meetings on time and ignore jokesters. A manager could also resort to punishment – the application of negative consequences. Common examples of punishment range from criticism to reduced pay and to dismissal. W Clay hammer has developed a six rule formula for using behavior modification as shown. (Hammer refers to employees as “subordinates”).

You will probably not be surprised to learn that reinforcement theory has received its share of criticism. To many people, the idea of “behavior modification” is disturbing since it implies that individual behaviors can be controlled by a person’s past experiences and present environment. This seems to challenge deeply held beliefs that human beings freely choose how to act. Some perspective on this debate comes from a research study conducted in the early 1970s, which investigated the importance of having a sense of control. This study has become known as the “button experiments”.

This set of experiments, by researchers David Glass (not the CEO of Wal-Mart) and Jerome Singer and their colleagues suggest that while people will do as they are told, they perform much more productively if they have some control over their situation. In one experiment, subjects were divided into two groups and told to perform a series of boring and repetitive tasks, some of which were impossible to complete. There was background noise consisting of people speaking Spanish and Armenian, machines roaring and grinding and a clicking typewriter. One group was given a button that would shut off the noise and was told to feel free to use it but only if the noise became too great to bear. The other group was given no button.

As expected, the group with the button outperformed the group without the button by a large margin: Members tried to solve five times the number of insoluble puzzles and had fewer errors in the repetitive tasks. But no one in the group ever used the button. It was enough for them to know that they had control and could exercise it if need be. Think about the applicability of this idea to the value of empowering employees; is quality likely to improve when employees have a sense of control?