For our April podcast episode, we discussed staff reinforcement and motivation (MO). In case you’d like to listen, you can go to our podcast page or use your preferred podcast app and search “Chirping with ABA Owls” – we’re on iTunes, Podbean and other platforms.
If you prefer to read rather than listen, carry on with this post.
What is Reinforcement and MO?
We do love a definition, here are some that we found helpful:
1 – “Reinforcement involves consequences that strengthen behaviour. To strengthen a behaviour means to increase the likelihood that it will occur again in the future”. From Beam ABA services
2- “Reinforcement is the backbone of the entire field of applied behavior analysis (ABA)”. From www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org
In terms of ABA and working with our clients, we strive to assess exactly what reinforces their behaviour, therefore reinforcement is personalised and depends on the individual.
Not everyone is good at telling you what they like or what they are motivated for. Even if they have excellent communication skills and are able to clearly tell you their preferences, it doesn’t mean they will.
It is important to bear in mind that just because someone prefers something, doesn’t mean that will reinforce their behaviour. Something becomes a reinforcer when it increases the target behaviour.
For example, imagine that a staff member prefers to have a longer lunch break, but that the target behaviour is getting the staff member to arrive on time for meetings. Giving them a longer lunch break, won’t necessarily increase the behaviour of arriving on time for meetings. What if the meeting is after lunch?
You need to make sure if what you are supplying is appropriate for the behaviour you want to increase and if it actually reinforces people’s behaviour – that is, it increases the behaviour.
Now onto motivation and how it works with reinforcement – we need to know what people are motivated for in order to reinforce them appropriately.
Here’s another definition: “Motivation is the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. Motivation involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behavior. In everyday usage, the term “motivation” is frequently used to describe why a person does something”- www.verywellmind.com
We need to fully understand what motivates people and how we can use that to reinforce the behaviours we want to increase.
Where and When to Reinforce
Time and place can be hard to choose.
We used to work in an organisation that would praise staff with a certificate during the weekly meeting but even with the best intentions, this might not be the ideal scenario for everyone.
Some people feel uncomfortable having attention thrown towards them, so they might not find the “reinforcer” actually reinforcing. The certificate worked as a tangible and social reinforcer, and would highlight a particular behaviour the staff member had engaged in.
Another facet of this weekly “reinforcer” is that it became expected – every week there had to be one staff member selected from each team. This causes the “reinforcer” to lose its value and strength, as staff can become satiated.
We also didn’t take any data on whether giving the certificate would increase a particular work behaviour – we can’t really call it a reinforcer if we don’t know its effects.
First off, assessment of what staff members prefer should be done regularly. Motivation fluctuates and changes all the time, sometimes we want to do something, other times we want to do something else and we are influenced by our experiences. Assuming that your staff will always want the same reinforcer is a mistake and it might lead to a drop in performance.
A study done by Byron, Gilroy and Hantula suggests that you should assess preference every couple of weeks or even more frequently. This is easier said than done but we believe that human resources are incredibly important, and if they aren’t valued or reinforced appropriately staff won’t perform their best work behaviour possible.
There are many variables to consider when you should reinforce behaviour: What is the target behaviour? Do they need constant reinforcement for it? Can it be spaced out?
The most crucial aspect is that the reinforcement should be delivered contingent on the target behaviour occurring. Even though there are procedures for non-contingent reinforcement, these need to be done appropriately, and most companies or employers won’t have the time and resources to do this – which can cause unwanted results.
There are many studies that show that reinforcement is the most effective when delivered immediately after the behaviour occurred, but with neurotypical adults in the work environment it’s not always possible to reinforce immediately. This is why it is important to know what you are reinforcing, what you will use as a reinforcer and then decide on a schedule (when to reinforce).
How to Assess Preferences? How to Reinforce?
Assessing reinforcers and motivation can be difficult and time consuming. Even when people are asked to complete a survey about what they prefer, they aren’t always honest. A survey can also be seen as another task to do. Even if you interview your staff on a 1:1 basis, they might not want to tell you (their employer or manager) exactly what they would like. This can be because there’s a lack of trust, they feel embarrassed, or any other reason you are not aware of.
This being said, it’s still important to ask staff what they want, even if it’s difficult and time consuming.
You can use a mixture of interview and survey – but whether you choose one method or to combine them, try to make it as less demanding as possible.
A mixture of open questions, array of options and “would you rather” can prove to be more effective than just using open-ended questions.
Consider reinforcers that you can actually offer in a sustainable manner, there are different kinds but we will briefly discuss two different types.
Tangibles can vary from objects to activities. For example, tickets for the cinema are a tangible item to gain access to an activity. Different people like different things, some staff might like learning, so having access to workshops or training can be valuable for them.
Social reinforcement can be a manager complimenting you on your work – sometimes in private, sometimes in front of others.
Research on this topic has shown that a mix of social and tangible reinforcement seems to be the most effective.
You can also observe staff on the kind of leisure activities they discuss, what tasks they work on first and which ones they avoid – be mindful that being observed can make people feel uncomfortable, don’t be over imposing.
Define a behaviour and test a reinforcement. Here’s an example: “Finishing a big assignment within the deadline”. This can be a bit of a vague target, you might have to define what qualifies as “big” or even define which behaviours are necessary to finish assignments on time – such as organising their time, scheduling catch up meetings, etc.
If the staff member loves going to the cinema, and you give them movie tickets for “finishing a big assignment within the deadline”, notice if their behaviour improves in future assignments.
It’s complicated to reinforce staff for every little behaviour – it might also be complicated to find the resources to provide reinforcement. In the end, it’s all about balance: Applying a reinforcement interval that keeps staff motivated to perform certain work behaviour and using preferred items/activities that will increase or maintain behaviour.
Why Should Staff be Reinforced?
People might ask: why do I need to add more reinforcement when they already get paid a salary? That should be motivating enough for them to work.
If a salary was enough of a reinforcement, then people would not change jobs.
Let’s look into what a salary actually reinforces. A staff member receives a salary for attending work for a certain amount of hours, they receive their wages on a weekly or monthly basis. If they are late performing tasks, they do not get the salary deducted – nor should they! Therefore, the salary is not reinforcing their productivity, it’s reinforcing them showing up for work consistently. People who work on commission, for example in sales, have to engage in certain behaviours in order to earn their commission – in this situation the commission is working as motivation for the behaviour of selling more, but it will only be a reinforcer if the behaviour is maintained or improved.
If you need staff to display more specific behaviours within the work day, then you’ll have to reinforce them for those behaviours. You can listen to more examples about this topic on our podcast episode.
End Thoughts and Resources
We’ve been on both ends, as the employee and as the manager, and we find it vital to understand reinforcement and what people are motivated by.
It can really make a difference on your staff’s productivity and the overall turnover in the workplace.
If you’d like to learn more on this topic, there is an excellent course about OBM (Organisational Behaviour Management) run by Chief Motivating Officers – www.chiefmotivatingofficers.com
Here is the source for the article we referenced regarding reinforcement frequency: Byron, W., Gilroy, S. & Hantula, D. A. (2012). Temporal (in)stability of employee preferences for rewards. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 32, 58-64. https://doi.org/10.1080/01608061.2012.646854
We hope you’ve enjoyed this post (and the podcast episode, if you’ve listened to it).
You can also follow us on Instagram (@ABA_owls), send us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org or leave us a comment below.
Thank you for reading,
Carla and Lauren