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What is Leadership, Really? Part 3: Which do you want - a Vicious or a Virtuous Cycle?

By September 27, 2012 16 Comments

Part 3 of 4

Now that we have an initial understanding of the types of consequences that our behavior may produce, we can return to the dilemma of the person responsible for changing the behavior of others. People in this position have a need to get more of some behavior from someone else, which narrows down the types of consequences at their avail to the two forms of reinforcement – Positive and Negative. The question that stands before us is this – If both forms of reinforcement will get us more behavior, is one form “better” than the other? The answer is unequivocally “Yes!!” Positive Reinforcement is definitely better than negative reinforcement for multiple reasons.

Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement

The first reason that positive reinforcement is better than negative reinforcement is tied to the simple fact that positive reinforcement inspires higher rates of behavior than negative reinforcement – a fact that has been empirically demonstrated over and over again. Let’s start by considering negative reinforcement and its effects, after which we will contrast this with positive reinforcement and its effects. As the influencer of others, one means that we have at our disposal is to motivate behavior in others by providing a consequence for the person over whom we are trying to wield influence that that is undesirable and will occur if they don’t comply with our requirements. In fact, this is a very common method of motivation used in organizational settings. For example, if you don’t show up for work on time, then you will be disciplined. If you show up for work on time, you avoid the undesired consequence.

So far, so good! We are getting more of the desired behavior from people. However, as experiments and observation have clearly shown, there are limits to the effectiveness of negative reinforcement as a means of motivation. As a general finding, it has been shown that the most behavior that you can expect to observe when negative reinforcement is the paradigm of motivation is the least amount of behavior required to avoid the undesired consequence. In a word, the most you can expect is compliance. The second major limitation to the application of negative reinforcement as a means of motivation is actually a limitation that is inherent to the use of punishment to reduce the rate of a given behavior. When we were talking about punishment above, we noted that, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Just as punishment is only effective as long as the source of punishment is present, negative reinforcement is only a motivator for behavior as long as the source of the undesired consequence is present.

This fact allows us to uncover another characteristic of negative reinforcement as a method of motivation. We have stated that negative reinforcement occurs when we do something so that we don’t get what we don’t want. The escape or avoidance of the undesired consequence that will occur if we don’t do something is the reinforcer for our behavior. But we can conceive of this another way. With negative reinforcement, either the undesired consequence or the threat of the occurrence of an undesired consequence must be present before we will act. The cat must be present to keep the mice on task. Above, however, we stated that Antecedents for behavior where those events that preceded our choice to act, while the consequences were those events that followed our behavior and were caused by our behavior. Careful consideration should make it apparent that negative reinforcement is a form of antecedent control over behavior. The wielder of negative reinforcement quickly learns that they are the “cause” for the behavior, and, if they are not wielding their stick, nothing will happen.

The "Influencee" Holds the Power

One of my graduate school professors, David Kipnis, did extensive research on the effects of the wielding of influence, but he focused on the effects that the wielding of influence had on the influencer, whom he referred to as the powerholder, rather than the influencee. What he found was an inclination for a vicious cycle. Above we mentioned a robust finding in social psychological research – the fundamental attribution error. One of the implications of the fundamental attribution error is that, when we do not receive the response that we want from others upon attempting to influence their behavior using antecedent interventions is that we tend to attribute the lack of response to the characteristics of their personality. This is precisely the dynamic that plays out in many cases where we are using a Rational Change management approach.

Let’s consider this for a moment. As we said above, when we have explained to people why change is needed, and we have taken the time to train and equip them with the skills needed to perform the new behaviors, and we still fail to get the type of response that we desire, it is easy to “blame” the employee. THEY are resistant to change. THEY are stuck in their ways. THEY are trying to make trouble for us. This sets up the escalation cycle that Aubrey Daniels called “Louder! Longer! Meaner!” In other words, we crank up the intensity of our antecedent interventions, and we begin to move down the continuum towards negative reinforcement – creating an undesired condition (or the threat of one) that will continue (or occur) if we don’t get the results for which we are looking.

David Kipnis’ research picked up essentially at this point. What he found was that those that used coercive methods (of which negative reinforcement is part) to motivate others became increasingly pessimistic about the potential of those that they influenced, became more and more convinced that they would not act on their own without outside prodding, and became more and more convinced that, if not for their efforts as the powerholders, nothing good would happen. Consequently, Kipnis found that they became even more likely to use coercive methods to “motivate” in the future. Just as the whiny child got positively reinforced for their tantrum, managers get positively reinforced for using negative reinforcement (yes, I went there!)! When they issue the threat, the employees go scurrying, but it is worth noting that the most that they will do is the least required to avoid the undesired consequence – a criteria for performance that is satisfied, by the way, just as much by passing the blame, staying below the radar, and any number of unproductive and undesired behavioral paths as it is satisfied by actually doing the things that will lead to the results that the manager ultimately desires.

Results from the Lab

Let’s contrast the negative reinforcement paradigm with positive reinforcement. In laboratory experiments, positive reinforcement routinely leads to significantly higher rates of behavior than negative reinforcement. This “above and beyond” behavior – the difference in rates between the “least required” rate of a negative reinforcement paradigm and that produced by an equivalent positive reinforcement paradigm – has been termed discretionary behavior by Aubrey Daniels. Rather than peaking at the least amount of behavior required to avoid the undesired outcome, positive reinforcement will tend to produce an “As much as I can” type of paradigm. Which do you think is more likely to lead to excellence – the least required to get by or the “As much as I can” paradigm?

While negative reinforcement leads to a vicious cycle, positive reinforcement tends to have the added benefit of creating a virtuous cycle of behavior. When I am motivated to act so that I will get what I want, I will tend to do as much as I can, and, when I face a barrier to my performance, my spontaneous response is to show initiative and problem solve. I often say that the true difference between a problem and an opportunity lies not in the behaviors required, but in the reinforcement paradigm that is at work in a given context. The commonality between both the problem and the opportunity is that there is a barrier of some kind that stands between the performer and the outcome that the are trying to produce. Just as the menial labor job that no one wants and bowling have the exact same behavioral description, the behavior required by the problem and the opportunity may be the same as well. So what is the difference? In the case of a problem, an undesired consequence will occur if we DON’T get it solved, while, in the case of an opportunity, a positive consequence will result if we DO get it solved. When we see those that we are trying to influence taking initiative (responding to a situation without our prompting) and taking ownership of a process rather than attributing negative characteristics to them, we will think good thoughts about them! Our efforts to use positive reinforcement will be positively reinforced in turn, and our virtuous cycle is off and running. Positive Reinforcement wins, hands down!

Continue to Part 4: Leadership is the Application of Positive Reinforcement

Part 2: The New Lens

Part 1: The Dilemma

Jonathan KrispinJonathan Krispin is a speaker and consultant based in Valdosta, GA, working primarily in the areas of strategic planning, business process improvement, organizational development, and leadership development. He is currently working on a book on leadership that adopts a trans-disciplinary approach.

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