Help Guide: Reinforcing and Rewarding Behaviour – A Cornerstone for Long-Term Transformation
It is a fundamental principle of behavioural psychology that what gets rewarded gets repeated. This concept holds true from the confines of our homes to the vast expanse of large corporations. For leaders or parents desiring to effect a transformation, it’s vital to understand the importance of reinforcing and rewarding new behaviours while discouraging the old.
The Psychological Importance
The reinforcement theory posits that behaviour which is followed by positive consequences is likely to be repeated, while behaviour followed by negative consequences is less likely to be repeated. When leaders or parents consistently reward the desired behaviours, they are making those behaviours more salient, attractive, and compelling.
Conversely, when the desired behaviours aren’t reinforced or rewarded – or worse, if old behaviours are unintentionally rewarded – individuals may become confused, demotivated, or resistant to change. The fallout can range from a decrease in team morale, decrease in trust, and an uptick in frustration, to outright defiance.
For example, in parenting young children, if a child is repeatedly given attention (even negative attention) for a disruptive behaviour, they may continue to behave in that manner simply because it gets them the attention they crave. Conversely, if positive actions go unnoticed, the child might feel that their good behaviour is pointless, leading to negative psychological impacts such as diminished self-worth.
Visibility in the Process
Being visible during this transformation process is paramount. When leaders or parents are visibly present, acknowledging and rewarding the desired behaviours, it sends a strong message about what is valued and appreciated. Visibility provides clarity, builds trust, and offers a model for others to emulate.
Organisational Successes in Reinforcement
One exemplary case is that of the British-based retail bank Metro Bank. Founded in 2010, Metro Bank made service culture its unique selling point. Employees, known as ‘colleagues’, were actively rewarded for going above and beyond for customers. Their “Magic Wow!” programme allows customers to nominate employees who provided exceptional service, ensuring that positive behaviour is visibly rewarded.
Another noteworthy example is ASOS, the British online fashion retailer. They made a strategic shift towards becoming more sustainable and eco-friendly. To embed this transformation, they not only invested in sustainable technology but also heavily incentivised suppliers and employees who adopted and championed eco-friendly practices, ensuring the desired behaviours were tangibly rewarded.
The Perils of Neglecting Reinforcement
On the other end of the spectrum, a classic case of missing the mark in reinforcing the right behaviours was seen with the British electronics retailer Maplin. Despite an overarching strategy to modernise their stores and become more tech-savvy, they inadvertently rewarded old behaviours. Employee bonuses and promotions were often tied to short-term sales rather than long-term strategic goals like customer service improvement or digitalisation. The disconnect between the company’s transformation vision and the behaviours they were rewarding played a role in their eventual demise.
For meaningful and lasting transformation, it is crucial to align rewards and recognitions with desired behaviours. When leaders and parents actively, consistently, and visibly reinforce the behaviours they want to see, they create an environment where change is not only possible but embraced. The lesson is clear: what gets rewarded, gets repeated. And in the quest for transformation, there’s no tool more powerful than positive reinforcement.