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Ivan Popov

i was once an athlete. then a journalist. now i am a ceo of an iT company. still running marathons though.

Positive Reinforcement in Leadership: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

positive reinforcement

Ask any employee you know and I bet they’d tell you there are mainly two types of bosses: the ones that rely on keeping you at the edge of your seat always awaiting the next punishment and the ones that always aim at encouraging you to do better. If you, like me, consider the second management style to be more effective, then I bet you’d find it interesting hearing all about the positive reinforcement in leadership.

Since nowadays a lot of people direct their attention to becoming leaders and managing teams, I thought it would be a nice idea to discuss some of the most popular leadership patterns of behavior and focus on positive reinforcement specifically. I believe the time when we conduct valuable psychological understandings and approaches in management has arrived – what’s more, we could all really benefit from discussing all the pros and cons we often stumble upon in leadership and thus decide for ourselves what best suits our leading style.

So, without any further ado, let’s enter the realms of positive reinforcement in leadership and see what it’s all about.

Before we focus on leadership, let’s first discuss what positive reinforcement is in a psychological aspect

The power of leadership comes from the fact that it requires soft skills and implementing specific human behavior in any given office situation. That said, it’s rather easy for us to understand why having impeccable social skills greatly helps when we find ourselves in a management position.

As we’ve already mentioned, there are two polarized psychological approaches to dealing with all kinds of situations. The first is through fear, punishment and consequences – we often view this approach simply as people setting rules and boundaries only for them to later punish others when they fail to meet the initial criteria and requirements. Of course, this approach is widely used and distributed in business settings as managers believe it’s effective and incredibly result-oriented. But is that the case really?

Positive reinforcement in psychology and business

In psychology, we refer to something called operant conditioning. This behavioral process of learning describes the idea that either behavior is strengthened or weakened depending on the consequences that follow. For instance, negative conditioning happens when we wish to reduce the frequency of certain behavior. Let’s say an employee is often running late for work. If the manager is a fan of negative conditioning, then they would punish the employee for the displayed behavior by for example cutting their salary or demanding them to work on weekends. The main goal is to reduce the frequency by showing all the negative consequences.

On the other hand, a manager who is a fan of positive reinforcement would know that offering positive consequences if the problematic behavior is reduced is likely to bring more success to the table. If we have to use the same example, it would look something like this: the employee often runs late for work, so the manager, instead of punishing them, offers them a reward if they start showing up on time. At first, this may sound rather counterintuitive, but in reality, it proves to be working wonders since the employee feel the manager is truly on their side reaching out to them and trying to help.

In the past, the majority of managers opted for negative consequences as this type of operant conditioning proved to be working – back then people didn’t feel as free as they do today in terms of leaving work, changing jobs and putting up with overwhelming situations. Today, however, things have changed – employees are far more resilient to change and they truly began valuing how a specific work atmosphere makes them feel. With that being said, it’s no wonder more and more leaders began choosing positive reinforcement as the backbone of their management strategy.

Here’s Why Positive Reinforcement Is Proven to Work Wonders in Today’s Business Climate

Once we’ve managed to understand what exactly positive reinforcement is, I now suggest it’s time for us to check how everyone benefits from it in a business setting. Here’s a list of several benefits that come from using this leadership approach – maybe it will give you food for thought.

  1. It influences and motivates. Research says that employees and leading staff, in general, feel happier and more content at their job if they feel influenced, inspired and motivated. Long gone are the days when an employee sticks to a specific job only because of the monetary reward. Nowadays with so many business and job opportunities, it’s fairly easy to land another job if you will. That said, positive reinforcement actually motivates and influences people more as they no longer need to feel dreaded by their superiors. Quite on the contrary, in fact – in them, they see people willing to invest time and energy to change them for the better.
  2. It’s rather easily achievable. When you come to think about it, choosing the positive reinforcement leadership strategy doesn’t require much. Simply including bonuses, promotions, praise and rewards are often enough to do the trick and help the staff feel supported and valued. Many employees share that this is the most important aspect of their choice to stay at a certain job with money coming second. If your employee displays a behavior you, as a manager, wish to observe more frequently, simply add a reward or praise – this way you condition their behavior and help them stay on the right track.
  3. It boosts employees’ engagement in the process. If a business wants to thrive, then it needs to assure its employees’ happiness and satisfaction since those help them stay engaged. Risking your employees to become indifferent to the business’s agendas and goals is perhaps the fastest way you’re going to lose your team. And since they don’t own the business, you need to make sure they stay engaged in the main goal in some different way. By using positive reinforcement, you show them they matter and that their presence is crucial for the company’s success.

Although it appears that positive reinforcement brings nothing but benefits to the business table, it’s important to mention that managers need to pay extra attention to keeping the right balance. If let’s say they overuse positive reinforcement, they risk the employees getting the wrong impression and start thinking they don’t need to go the extra mile in terms of their professional aspirations. 

While positive reinforcement is a powerful leadership tool, it also needs to be balanced to the point where employees are completely aware of what’s required of them without the fear of getting punished for a mishap. This leaves them space to grow and further develop their business skills.


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