Organizational Behavior Management

Organizational behavior management (OBM) combines the principles of B. F. Skinner’s reinforcement theory with applications in work settings. It espouses the same basic tenet as reinforcement theory: Behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences. What occurs after rather than before the behavior of interest is the focus, as exemplified in the principles of reinforcement and punishment. These principles, particularly positive reinforcement, are applied in the public and private sectors to motivate the members of these organizations.

Organizational Behavior Management Embodies the Scientist-Practitioner Model

Embracing reinforcement or behavior analysis principles that are used to solve problems in work settings, OBM embodies the scientist-practitioner model rec-ommended for the study of psychology. A behavior analyst acts in the role of a practitioner, who provides professional services to the members of organizations, as well as that of a scientist, who seeks to improve the plan used to promote performance. To determine whether a given plan or intervention is effective, no number of testimonials or expert opinions substitute for the collection of data that a given result actually occurred. So strong is this belief in empirical evidence that the primary journal, the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management (JOBM), was started in 1977 not by academics but by members of a consulting firm, Behavioral Systems, Inc., spearheaded by former quarterback Fran Tarkenton and led by clinical psychologist Aubrey Daniels.

Exchanges between academics and nonacademics continue to be plentiful. At the Association for Behavior Analysis conference, professors and students give papers side by side with colleagues in organizations such as Chevron and JPMorgan Chase. In the OBM network, 58% of the members are academics and 42% are nonacademics, and in JOBM,31% of the articles are contributed by professionals in human service settings as well as members of behaviorally oriented consulting firms. In contrast, in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the affiliation of authors outside of universities is 13%.

Proactive Stance Plays a Key Role in the Direction of Organizational Behavior Management

The aim of making the world a better place is distinctive in psychology to OBM in particular and reinforcement theory in general. Fueled by Skinner, who wrote about his vision of a utopian community in Walden Two, the use of reinforcement for prosocial purposes took root in the 1960s. During that era in the United States, dramatic societal changes were occurring: the passage of landmark civil rights legislation and the ending of the Vietnam War. At the same time, reports heralded the first successful applications of reinforcement theory. Children who had been diagnosed as autistic and were destined to spend the remainder of their lives within the drab walls of institutions began to communicate and help themselves when they were reinforced for successive approximations to desired behaviors. Teachers using a combination of positive reinforcement and extinction helped first graders in a disadvantaged neighborhood learn skills critical to their further achievement. At Emery Air Freight and American Airlines, as Skinner described, positive reinforcement programs were being implemented. The evening news touted the results of a token economy program in the army at Fort Ord, California. In 1968, in the first issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, the field’s pioneers Donald Baer, Montrose Wolf, and Todd Risley predicted that researching mental retardation, crime, mental illness, and education, to name a few, would make for a better society. Hence it was not surprising when behavior analysts went to work sites where they too actively sought to make improvements.

This desire to make a difference has made a difference. Behavior analysts do not restrict themselves to traditional areas such as productivity and absenteeism. Instead, they have tackled such subtle and elusive issues as the quality of client care, even though the definitions and measures of what staff should do to bring about the changes in their clients is a challenge. Similarly, when company presidents wanted to reduce employees’ injuries, behavior analysts went beyond the conventional counts of accidents to develop new ways of appraising what workers need to do to avoid having accidents.

The kinds of performance addressed range widely. They include, among others, the following:

  • Production and production-related, such as conducting building code inspections, processing student applications, and sorting and loading packages
  • Attendance and punctuality necessitated by needing to have a minimum number of qualified personnel in human service settings, hospitals, and unionized manufacturing and distribution centers
  • Safety and health, which includes safe and unsafe acts, such as properly lifting patients and wearing ear plugs, as well as other indexes, including housekeeping and the reduction of hazards, all of which are designed to lessen the chance of causing a disabling injury
  • Care given to patients, clients, and students in community mental health centers, schools, and institutions, as well as service delivered to customers in banks, restaurants, and department stores

Productivity accounts for approximately one fifth of the studies. The second highest is attendance. Next, with 10% to 15% of the studies, are safety and service.

A Behavioral Approach to Appraising and Motivating Members of Organizations

Five Integral Steps

In the most prevalent intervention, that of positive reinforcement, behavior analysts use five steps.

  1. They analyze the situation to determine what conditions might be responsible for maintaining the problem. Instead of dwelling on the characteristics of individuals such as their poor work attitudes, problematic personalities, or lower educational and experience levels, none of which can be readily changed, they examine the consequences of employees’ performance, including the evaluation, compensation, and promotion practices of companies. Then, if warranted, they attempt to change not the people per se, but these personnel practices.
  2. They specify desired performance, defining work practices, such as smiling at a customer or clearing walkways of spills, until the definitions meet the test of interrater reliability, in which two raters independently collect data, check for agreements, and obtain agreement scores of 90% or better.
  3. They measure desired performance, going regularly to the site, recording the level or rate of performance, and conducting interrater reliability checks.
  4. They provide frequent, contingent, positive consequences, such as posting scores on a graph to permit workers to see how their scores compare with their previous record.
  5. Finally, they evaluate the effectiveness of the program by using a research design (often the within-group reversal or multiple baseline), permitting the drawing of conclusions about causality with confidence, to see if the program caused the changes.

Highlighting the Integral Steps of Specifying and Measuring Performance

Steps two and three are critical to positively reinforce workers for jobs well done. Hence behavior analysts expend considerable time and effort ensuring the quality of how the information is gathered. However, what is measured is as important as how the data are obtained. Judith L. Komaki has identified five criteria. Given as the mnemonic SURF & C, the criteria stand for the following:

S: The target or dependent variable is sampled (S) directly rather than using a filtered or secondary source, for example, workers or the products of their work are observed firsthand instead of relying on their own or someone else’s reports.

U: The target is primarily under (U) the workers’ control, responsive to their efforts, and minimally affected by extraneous factors.

R: Interrater reliability (R) scores of 90% or better are obtained during the formal data collection period. Observers or raters go independently to sample workers’ performance or behaviors, terms used interchangeably, rating use of the same scoring system and checking to see if they agree. They continue practicing and, in some cases, revamping the coding system until they can obtain scores of 90% or better.

F: The target is assessed frequently (F)—often and regularly—at least 20 and ideally 30 times during the intervention period. And

C: Evidence is provided showing that the target is indeed critical (C) to the desired result, otherwise referred to as valid. The evidence can be a significant correlation between the measure, such as a newly developed checklist for service, and the ultimate criterion including customer satisfaction.

The criteria of U and C are concerned with what is measured; the criteria of S, R, and F are concerned with how the information is collected.

 A Nontraditional Approach to Reducing Injuries: Measuring Safety Performance

Consider an example: Lack of control is an issue with the readily available injury statistics. Workers can perform safely yet still be injured; at the same time, workers can be unsafe and still not have an accident. Hence to avoid relying on a measure over which workers cannot readily exert much control, behavior analysts have devised new measures of safety performance, such as looking at whether workers lift properly, actions that are for the most part under (U) their control. To ensure that the newly developed measure is valid, Robert A. Reber and Jerry A. Wallin (1983) collected data in different departments in a factory on injuries and the new measure of safety practices and then conducted a correlational analysis. Finding the higher the practices, the lower the injuries per department indicated that the measure was critical (C). At the same time, data are typically collected so that the S, R, and F criteria are met. Trained observers go to the site and directly sample (S) work practices. They collect information frequently (F), often at least weekly. Last, interrater reliability (R) checks are done in which two observers independently record and identify agreements between raters and calculate a percentage agreement score (number of agreements/ number of agreements and disagreements). Checklist revisions continue until agreement is reached on the scoring of checklist items almost all the time. When this criterion is achieved, then and only then are the terms considered to be acceptably defined. Reliability checks are also used in training; trainees are not considered trained until they can pass the interrater reliability test. Raters are then regularly checked to see if they are becoming stricter or more lenient during the formal data collection. These measures of safety enable the providing of positive consequences, which have the long-term impact of reducing costly and tragic injuries.

Going Beyond the Student to Assess the Behavior of the Teacher

Behaviorally based interventions have become the most prevalent approach for the treatment of children and adults with autism and developmental disabilities. Among its special features are the ways teachers are assessed. The ultimate outcome—improving client skills—is clear. To achieve this result, however, it is insufficient to focus on only the client. Instead, it is important to identify what staff members should do to enable improvements in their clients. Among the enabling practices Dennis R. Reid and his colleagues specified for teachers of the developmentally disabled were giving instructions, often verbal; guiding the student physically through the steps; and delivering rewards that are timely and contingent. To see whether these behaviors were valid, they looked to see if there was a relationship between the behaviors of students and teachers. Their analysis showed that as the appropriate use of teaching techniques increased, so did the skills of the students, indicating that the practices were critical (C). As in the preceding example, the S, R, and F criteria were met. Reid and his colleagues directly sampled (S) the teachers’ implementation of the techniques, collecting data frequently (F), at least daily. The observers conducted interrater reliability (R) checks on one fifth of the observations; scores ranged between 74% and 97%.

The specification and measurement of performance enable frequent, contingent, positive consequences for desired performance. Although these steps are deceptively simple, they have resulted in far-reaching and meaningful differences at work on a variety of challenging tasks.


  1. Austin, J., & Carr, J. E. (Eds.). (2000). Handbook of applied behavior analysis. Reno, NV: Context Press.
  2. Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91-97.
  3. Daniels, A. C. (1994). Bringing out the best in people. New York: McGraw-Hill. Komaki, J. L. (1998). When performance improvement is the goal: A new set of criteria for criteria. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31, 263-280.
  4. Komaki, J. L. (2003). Reinforcement theory at work: Enhancing and explaining what employees do. In L. W. Porter, G. A. Bigley, & R. M. Steers (Eds.), Motivation and work behavior (7th ed., pp. 95-112). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  5. Reber, R. A., & Wallin, J. A. (1983). Validation of a behavioral measure of occupational safety. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 5(2), 69-77.
  6. Skinner, B. F. (1983). A matter of consequences: Part 3 of an autobiography. New York: Random House.

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