The best leaders have the most productive people… who are also happy. The real challenge is to design incentive systems that encourage high performance and also engender high employee morale. The following steps related to positive reinforcement will help raise levels of employee motivation.

  1. Describe the Goal or Target Behavior 

The target should always be related to performance. What specifically must the individual do to become a high performer? Answers such as work faster, be dependable, or take initiative are too general. “Answer the phone in a more professional manner” should be replaced with, “When you answer the phone, say, ‘This is XYZ Enterprises, Donna speaking. How may I direct your call?’” State the goal or target behavior clearly.

If the target behavior is actually a complex chain of behaviors, divide it into a chain of smaller successive behaviors. It is best to find a smaller series of steps you can reward instead of waiting to reward the individual when the entire task is completed. In other words, acknowledge small successes.

  1. Check the Technical Skill Level 

Make sure the individual possesses the technical skill required for the job. If low performance is due to lack of natural ability or training, provide the training and information to set the employee up for success.

  1. Select a Meaningful Reward 

Make sure that you know your employees well enough to provide an appropriate reward that will be meaningful to that person. “One size fits all” rewards are not going to motivate everyone on your team.

  1. Provide Positive Reinforcement 

Make all positive reinforcement based on the employee moving closer to the target behavior you desire. If the employee receives the same reward at performance level two as at performance level five, the supervisor’s reinforcement actually discourages improvement. This is what happens when everyone in the organization is given the same raise reward.

  1. Administer Immediate Rewards 

Administer rewards immediately following each improvement in behavior. Most managers and supervisors give positive feedback at the worst possible time—when they want to, not when the employee would be most reinforced by it. Feedback on the negative consequences of an employee’s performance is often delayed for months by the supervisor. No wonder we have problems with motivation!

  1. Use Intermittent Reinforcement 

As the desired behavior becomes a reality, change from a continuous reward structure to an intermittent reinforcement schedule. Administering a reward every time a given behavior occurs is continuous reinforcement. Administering rewards on an intermittent basis means administering the same reward each time, but not every time it is warranted. Neither approach is clearly superior, but they both have trade-offs.

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