The world is burning and our futures (both collective and individual) have never seemed this uncertain – so it may be somewhat of an understatement to say we could all use some positivity to keep our hopes up. But while most people won’t automatically think of their office as a source of those #goodvibes, therein lies at least part of the problem.
We all know how it works: positive reinforcement (and positive recognition) is the seemingly simple act of acknowledging and appreciating someone’s contributions. Whether that’s a £150K sale, a thoughtful restructuring of office desks, or even a “can do!” attitude, positive reinforcement is meant to highlight what a person has brought to the office, whether tangible or not.
However, there’s a fair chance that these words have elicited one of two responses from you, those being either: “But what real benefit does positive reinforcement provide?” or “Fantastic! I already do this, and can now get back to that YouTube video of otters holding hands.”
Luckily, we have a follow-up to both responses. Here’s why positive reinforcement deserves more of your attention, and how you can make it a part of your culture - with or without a physical workspace!
What real benefit does positive reinforcement provide?
While establishing and enforcing repercussions for poor work is a necessary approach to eliminating unacceptable behaviour, it doesn’t encourage or reinforce the behaviours you do desire. And by placing emphasis mostly (or solely) on the errors a person makes, you could be fostering an office environment that makes work feel like a thankless task – thereby demotivating your employees and contributing to anxiety and stress during high-pressure situations. It’s important to rethink how you approach giving feedback:
“When giving feedback - whether to our colleagues or in our personal lives - it's become habit to focus on ‘areas for improvement’. Whilst this is a vital tool for continuous development, it doesn’t take much to feel constantly criticised. In the words of Ken Blanchard, a simple positive reinforcement rule that I strive to follow is to 'Catch them doing something right'!
Learning something new (as most of us do throughout our working lives!), is full of uncertainty and inevitable set-backs. Confirmation that we’re doing ok and intentional focus on quality across all of our activities (rather than an unhealthy fixation on the negatives or only praising outstanding efforts) provides the reassurance needed to keep persevering!”
A report published by Deloitte Insights revealed that only 59% of employees feel like their organisation has effectively encouraged a positive work environment. This is particularly worrying when you consider that workers consistently rank rewards and recognition as the number one driver of employee engagement.
“Cash matters in people’s lives, but it’s not all that matters. What really matters in the workplace is helping employees feel appreciated,” notes Ashley V. Whillans in research released by Harvard Business School.
Sincerely-offered praise is one of the clearest ways to communicate that you are aware and appreciative of the good work your employees do, and encourages them to continue with their efforts, if not aim even higher. HBS even established that companies with strong recognition programs benefit from “increased productivity, lower job turnover, and greater returns on investment.”
And why is this? If we delve into the psychology behind it, we can find an answer in Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect, which states that actions met with favourable responses tend to be repeated, while actions that are not often die out. An employee who goes above and beyond to deliver high quality output may not continue to do so if their efforts are unrecognised or met with disinterest – which is why giving them the feedback they deserve is so important!
Fantastic! I already do this!
But what if you offer praise to your employees already? Well, while it seems like a simple enough concept (and certainly can be once you get into the groove of things), it’s important to ensure that you deliver positive reinforcement in a way that connects with and motivates employees.
This doesn’t mean creating a structured, heavily regimented means of doing so – but there are a few general rules that you should keep in mind moving forward:
While “good job!” or “great work team!” is a fine starting point, identifying the actual elements of a person’s work that you’re pleased with shows you’ve been paying attention to their efforts and communicates what aspects of their work they need to maintain at that quality.
Detailed praise will also help convey your sincerity – which is where all your praise should come from, in case that isn’t obvious. Forced, robotic comments are not going to have the same effect as genuine gratitude, which is another reason why regimented “praise sessions” may not always be the way to go – though this can vary from office to office.
There’s no need to wait for a monthly review to dish out any praise. Share it as soon as an employee does anything worthy of it, and remember, even small gestures contribute to the quality of a company's culture! We exist in a world that bombards us with thousands of stimulants on a daily basis – so kind words can’t afford to be few and far between if you want them to have any real effect.
If you’re struggling to find instances that inspire praise, evaluate why things might be slipping your notice. As our own Dan Wells notes, changing your day-to-day perspective can actually be far more work than it seems.
“I’ve tried to train my mind over time to see the positive in every situation. Negativity is simply a state of mind which becomes routine the more you allow it to engulf you. As a Learning and Development professional it’s critical that I don’t allow negative thoughts to infect the people I train on a day-to-day basis so it’s absolutely vital that I positively reinforce everything that my staff do – even if it’s not always quite what I was expecting!”
If a part (or all!) of your team works remotely, it becomes even more important that you identify and reward good work as efficiently as possible. It can be easy for people to feel like their contributions are unseen when working away or outside of a physical office space; be sure to set up processes that give your more visibility on what's happening within all teams. For example, employees could share weekly progress reports with their line managers, including their latest wins and challenges, which can then be passed on in a more condensed form to department heads.
While one-on-one feedback is fantastic, consider sharing praise in a public arena as well whenever possible. Frequent and public positive reinforcement will help build a culture that drives itself on mutual support – encouraging employees to do the same amongst themselves, which nurtures team spirit and cuts down on unnecessary competition.
With remote teams, use a specific channel on Slack or your platform of choice to share some love! You can create a channel specifically for shouting out good work, or even use a general channel – as long as it isn't too busy, as you don't want such messages getting lost in all the chatter.
Avoid using superlatives or comparative comments such as “Raj is the most hard-working analyst we’ve seen…” or “out of everyone in the team, Natasha was…” as they place your employees in competition with each other and can seem unappreciative of others’ efforts.
And on a related note, if you find yourself giving the same few people the most praise – pull back! Consider why the rest of your team isn’t receiving the same positive reinforcement (it could be the lack of visiblity that we discussed earlier!), and then actively work on ways to fix that.
All in all, using your words to foster a supportive, positive working environment isn’t rocket science – but it’s certainly something to be mindful about, and definitely shouldn't be undervalued. As an employer, the health of your organisation rests on the work of your team. It’s their efforts that make every new success possible, so isn’t it time they felt that way?