Feedback and Rewards

Be Careful What You Reinforce: Feedback and Coaching

Richard L. Williams, Ph.d. asked:

/>An employee’s effort, commonly referred to as “work,” consists of the behavior(s) that he or she performs while on the job. Effort has been described as being on a scale of high, medium, or low. An employee’s performance is the results, and is the product of effort (work) and behaviors. Performance is typically classified as being superior, average, or substandard.

When coaching your subordinates you must understand and recognize the direct relationship between an employee’s behaviors, and the results those behaviors produce for the organization. Not all behaviors are appropriate for the workplace, and not all behaviors produce desired results that drive organizational success. Effective coaching includes effective feedback and mostly focuses on desired results, and the behaviors that produce those results. When giving supportive feedback it’s important to avoid reinforcing an employee’s effort or “hard work,” because it may have little to do with desired behaviors and results. Well-intentioned managers tend to do this with comments like, “Way to go,” or “I like your hard work.” The problem is that these comments tend to reinforce effort, rather than positive results and success.

Feedback and coaching can be an incredibly powerful tool when used properly. Likewise, when used improperly it can be very damaging. Knowing how and when to use feedback is very important, however, it requires just a little understanding of basic psychology.

For one of the tests in Psychology 101, most students memorize the phrase “A behavior rewarded tends to be repeated.” Or stated another way, “Reward the behavior you would like to see again.” These phrases are part of a greater understanding called: Thorndyke’s Law of Effect. Thorndyke made this discovery over a hundred years ago, but the principle is just as sound today as it was in his day. So remember, when you give feedback to someone for a behavior, knowingly or even unknowingly, you are probably going to see more of that same behavior. That’s because, “a behavior rewarded tends to be repeated.”

If, for example, you are unaware of what is really going on and walk by an employee and casually say, “I sure appreciate your contributions today, you’re looking good,” you could inadvertently reinforce bad behavior. The employee could have just made a serious mistake or even have been rude to a customer. Subconsciously the employee would believe that the inappropriate behavior had just been reinforced and should, therefore, be repeated.

The Effort verses Performance illustration on this page is an example I use in my feedback workshop. It’s interesting to ask managers, and even executives, what type of feedback they would give employee A? What type for employee B? And, what type for employee C? Clearly, employee A is working very hard, but is producing only average results. This could even be the result of the manager rewarding this employee’s effort, rather than focusing on the results the employee is producing.

Employee B, on the other hand, is able to achieve good results by working smart, not hard. It would be important to reward this employee’s knowledge and ability, or the manager may see an erosion of the performance. So, frequent supportive feedback mostly focused on results and success would be the appropriate prescription for this employee.

Employee C is one of those rare people who have mastered his/her job. He/she has learned short cuts and “tricks of the trade” that enable him/her to be successful without experiencing burnout. This employee obviously needs and deserves regular supportive feedback on his/her performance. By the way, it’s not uncommon for people in employee C’s situation to get bored or even look for another job if he/she doesn’t receive recognition and praise through frequent supportive feedback.

On the job many employee actions tend to follow the type of feedback and coaching they receive from their manager. In other words, if a manager’s feedback to an employee is mostly in a particular area, then the employee’s behavior is more likely to follow in that particular area than it is in another area. For example, a manager has a choice of giving feedback in the following five areas:

1. Employee’s character such as honesty, truthfulness and trustworthiness.

2. Employee’s intentions such as, “I’ll try to fix that tomorrow, boss.”

3. Employee’s effort such as, “Hey there, look how hard I’m working.”

4. Employee’s behaviors such as what the employee does.

5. Employee’s results such as the measurable success he/she produces.

If you reinforce an employee’s positive character traits, you could see more of those good traits. If you reinforce a person’s intentions, that’s what you may get, just more intentions. If you reinforce effort, you could motivate the employee to work harder, not necessarily smarter. If you reinforce behaviors, you could see the employee repeating that same behavior; hopefully, the behavior will produce desired results. And if you reinforce the positive results the employee actually produces, the employee will focus more on being successful and figure out for himself/herself what behaviors (along with the effort needed for the behavior) will produce the results. In my coaching of people at all levels I try to give feedback on character, results and behavior. And I do so in that order because those are the three desired results I want to see the employee repeat.

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