reinforcement theory

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Is based on the idea that human behaviour can be shaped through a system of reward focused on reinforcing desirable behaviour. Psychologists suggest that in a work setting, managers must identify and explain to employees the desired behaviour and then devise methods of reinforcement. Reinforcement is the attempt to elicit a desirable behaviour through either the introduction of a pleasant aspect of work (positive reinforcement) or the removal of an unpleasant aspect of work (negative reinforcement). For example, in order to reward the representative with the best sales record at the end of each month, he or she could be given a bonus payment (positive reinforcement) or relieved from the tedious post-sales paperwork for the next month (negative reinforcement). For reinforcement to have full effect, psychologists have found that the reward must be valued by the person concerned, and it must follow quickly the behaviour it is designed to reinforce. So, for example, if a person does a good job, he or she should be given a reward (praise, bonus, etc.) immediately, rather than several weeks later. Reinforcement not only provides feedback about the desired behaviour, it also helps to sustain motivation. It is important not to confuse negative reinforcement with punishment—they do not mean the same thing. Punishment is the attempt to eliminate an undesirable behaviour through either the introduction of an unpleasant aspect of work or the removal of a pleasant aspect of work (sometimes called ‘omission’). Whereas reinforcement is focused on the desired behaviour, punishment is focused on undesired behaviour. Therefore, punishment is considered an inferior approach because it tells employees what not to do but does not inform them about the desirable behaviour. It also fails to have any motivational effect. In reality, most workplaces have systems of both reinforcement and punishment to guide behaviour. [See also reward.]

Subjects: Human Resource Management.

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