What’s REALLY Getting Reinforced?
by Lawrence E. Wharton

This seems to be a simple and straightforward question, and at one level it is. But at more sophisticated levels the answer (actually many answers) is very difficult to uncover. When it is uncovered, managers and leaders are often in denial or disbelief. Let’s look at why.

As part of the endless quest for ever-higher levels of effectiveness, however measured, leaders naturally look at “reward and recognition” systems. The idea is that rewards and recognition of the right type will generate behavior of the right type, which in turn will produce great outcomes. It’s hard to argue with this as people do tend to repeat behavior that is rewarded, if they value the rewards. And we have seen a similar thinking about rewards in team settings: what shall the rewards be and how shall they be distributed are vital questions affecting team functioning.

Leaders are looking at rewards and recognition as an important method of engendering commitment and dedicated effort from employees at all levels. But there is a problem. Many leaders view rewards and recognition from a very narrow perspective, often failing to see that there are other aspects of rewards and recognition that must be examined. Working with these other aspects allows leaders to learn what actually assists people in bringing their personal energy to the job, and what hurdles exist in the current system that may actually undermine the very effectiveness efforts leaders desire.

At the outset we need to recognize that the word “reinforcement” is more useful than the phrase “rewards and recognition.” It encompasses far more than the latter, and holds the key to the real leverage available to leaders in bringing about changes in effectiveness. When most leaders talk about rewards and recognition, they refer to the overt and officially sanctioned forms of providing motivation for people, including pay increases, bonuses, special training, a better office, an exciting project to work on, and so forth. While valuable, these techniques and the perspective they represent are quite narrow and cause leaders to miss key ingredients in behavior that are critical to the search for effectiveness.

How am I using “reinforcement”? It signifies any behavior (or absence of it) on the part of leaders resulting in behavior of subordinates being encouraged. This definition allows us to look at anything leaders do or fail to do that, in effect, says to those below them: keep right on doing what you’re doing. In many instances this encouraged behavior is just fine, and in other situations it is actually contrary to what the leaders wish, with unpleasant results. 

From the new vantage point of reinforcement, leaders have much greater leverage in elevating their units or organization to profound levels of performance. However, getting to these higher levels usually entails considerable discomfort, because it requires leaders to look at their own behavior in the most critical and objective manner. Many would just as soon leave this part of the effort securely lodged under a two-ton stone, where it never sees the light of day. Other leaders are simply oblivious to their behavior’s key role in unit or organizational effectiveness

The sophisticated leader sees reinforcement as having three aspects: explicit/overt, tacit, and ignored, each of which can play a prominent and useful role in an organization. Unfortunately, each can also be highly dysfunctional and produce very bad outcomes. Further, each can fade into the others, making real understanding more difficult. My purpose in examining them separately is to enable leaders to understand and use each aspect more easily. 

Above I gave a number of common examples of the explicit and overt methods of reinforcement, such as raises and exciting projects to work on. These are positive on the face, but have negative aspects as well. For example, neat projects may be replaced with no projects or an assignment in toilet cleaning, and a salary decrease may result rather than an increase. The explicit and overt is the basket into which a large number of leaders put most of their eggs, much to their disappointment — when behavior changes are not forthcoming as they intend, leaders are understandably disgruntled and frustrated.

Undesirable work assignments are often used to deal with employees managers dislike, whose performance is poor, or who managers may wish to get rid of. These actions are not officially acknowledged; managers don’t want to admit publicly that they engage in such petty methods instead of dealing with the problem, if there is one, in a straight-forward and direct manner. This is an example of how the aspects of reinforcement can fade into one another. In this case, what is normally an overt and specific reinforcer — work assignments — is played out tacitly. Leaders may think people in the organization do not know what’s really happening, but indeed they do, seriously undermining the leader’s credibility and trustworthiness.

As leaders develop and begin to see the tacit aspects to reinforcement, they achieve a deeper and more useful level of understanding about behavioral dynamics. Tacit refers to unspoken,  unacknowledged, and often organizationally denied forms of leader behavior. Such behaviors are frequently at variance with what the leaders themselves say they want. The behaviors are not necessarily negative, but leaders using them are often unaware they are doing so, and this can quickly move things into the negative. An example is the leader who tells everyone that open communications are critical, and who punishes those who practice it seriously. Another example is the leader who tells her divisional heads that collaboration is the only way to success, but who then accords special attention and favor to those who are lone rangers. Most people recognize these types of behaviors as both common and negative. They also recognize that the leader's behavior reinforces behavior among subordinates the leader says he/she does not want.

This last example is a classic and relatively simple case of a leader wanting something useful to happen but failing to see that her encouragement of “stars” is actually reinforcing the very things she says she does not want. This leader is not looking into the underlying behavioral dynamics of why collaboration is not taking place. So long as she fails to do so, she will experience continued frustration, not to mention lowered organizational effectiveness due to poor collaboration.

Tacit reinforcement can work positively, as in the case where a leader does not respond at all to a subordinate manager’s attempts at ingratiation, and thereby may extinguish it. While this may work some times, it is far less preferable than direct and open communication around a problem. In other words, if you want a subordinate manager to stop doing something, why not talk with him directly about it.

The third aspect of reinforcement — ignored — deals with behavior managers and leaders pay no attention to, deliberately or not. People know quite well when you talk about raising children that failing to hold a child accountable for bad behavior encourages that behavior to be repeated. That is what this aspect is about. Certainly not all behavior has to be addressed and dealt with; some is just fine, and some problem pieces work their way out on their own. But leaders looking for qualitatively higher levels of enduring performance must examine rigorously what behavior is being ignored, and thereby reinforced.

A CEO I am aware of has heard that there are differences and negative conflicts between his headquarters group and his 5 divisions. This CEO has spoken eloquently about his intentions that the HQ group and the divisions get along well and collaborate — territoriality and I win/you loose scenarios are out as he sees it. In his mind, he is perfectly clear about what he wants and, in fact, that is how the divisions and HQ see it — they’re just not doing it. The CEO is irritated and frustrated that collaboration and effective work are not taking place, but other than that expressing those feelings, not much happens. Like many leaders, he makes the assumption that people will do what he says. When they don’t, he may give up or get dictatorial, but seldom will he see that, first and foremost, he has failed to hold people properly accountable for not being collaborative.

When leaders I work with hear of such examples, they say, “Well, of course he failed to hold them accountable! What’s the big deal?” The big deal is more talk and no action. A goodly number of the executives I have worked with felt they did not miss signals telling them about behavior they didn’t like and wished to see eliminated. And nearly every one of them had in fact missed a considerable amount of such behavior! They failed to see the subtle aspects of reinforcement, and their effectiveness was compromised.

Leaders must face a difficult fact: business is done the way it is done (people behave the way they behave) because of what leaders reinforce. If leaders desire behavior changes — required in any change initiative — guess who MUST change first. That’s right: leaders, especially those at the top. Leaders must ask, “What have we been reinforcing and how have we been doing it that we would rather not?” And they do not get to answer, “Nothing that’s a problem.” Having uncovered those, the next step is to determine what changes in their behavior must be made before they run off with typical executive enthusiasm and tell everybody it’s time for a change, yet again. And lastly, they must see those changes put into effect.

So, the main idea for leaders at all levels, but particularly those at the top, is recognizing that reinforcement is a far larger factor in change initiatives and effectiveness improvement than previously thought. The greater a leader’s depth of understanding about all aspects of reinforcement, the greater his or her chances of making a major impact within the unit or organization. And this is precisely what leverage is all about. What effort do I as the leader exert, where do I do it, and how do I do it to produce the largest positive outcome for the smallest input? Understanding and properly using the three aspects of reinforcement produce leverage.

The challenge, of course, is that looking at reinforcement in the comprehensive way I am suggesting demands much of leaders — they must take the main responsibility for things as they are now, for how people are behaving for good or ill. It is this willingness to examine one’s contribution to the existing state of behavioral affairs that distinguishes the quality leaders from the also-rans. But even for those ready for the challenge, the process can be painful when you find you have tacitly or through omission reinforced behaviors you detest, and about which you have been quite public.

But there is even more to the challenge. The top leader has to examine with particular care his/her relationships with senior staff, and must understand most clearly the latter’s relationships with lower-level managers. The leader cannot assume that altered patterns of behavior he/she desires will be carried through the managerial system effectively, or at all. So, the leader must ask, “What must I do to ensure that the message and the actions are carried through, and what feedback systems must be in place to validate the carrying through?” You can be sure that reinforcement problems exist at lower levels. Top leaders often exhibit staggering levels of ignorance about such problems.

Once again, it is the leader’s behavior that must get the most attention, and rightly so. If leaders are truly serious about increased effectiveness, they have to open Pandora’s Box and look at the tough, embarrassing, or highly irritating things. 

What’s REALLY getting reinforced, and do you want to know?


Lawrence E. Wharton is a partner of a leader behavior consulting firm (Wharton and Roi) that focuses on the connection between leaders' behavior and unit/organizational effectiveness. The firm has worked with clients such as Costco, Boeing, Oregon Dept of Health, The Oregon State Bar, Sharp Microelectronics, Portland Community College, The Casey Family Program, and many others. Contact Lawrence E. Wharton, MBA at 3931 E. Skyline Dr. Tucson, AZ 85718, Phone: (520) 577-0823, Fax: (520) 577-3644, e-mail: whartonl@mindspring.com .

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