Reinforcement Theory of Motivation

The operant conditioning or reinforcement theory of B. F. Skinner is one of the major psychological theories concerned with motivation at work. Unique in the social sciences, it identifies two of its major concepts according to the time at which they occur: (1) antecedents, such as communicating company policy, providing training, and setting goals, which typically precede the targeted behavior; and (2) consequences that take place after performance, such as compliments for a job well done, acknowledgment of the receipt of work, feedback on the quality of the task done, and graphs showing performance plotted over time, as well as the avoidance of such distasteful events as unwarranted criticism, punching in on a time clock, or the processing of complaints or grievances.

The action that occurs (or does not occur) after the behavior of interest is considered the driving force in motivation.

History of Reinforcement Theory

Although Skinner had formulated the basic principles of operant conditioning by the 1940s, they were not widely applied outside university laboratories until the 1960s. Initially, reinforcement theory, also referred to as applied behavior analysis, was used in the wards of institutions for the mentally retarded. Behavior analysts designed programs for use with patients and, soon thereafter, with staff.

The same principles were used regardless of whether the setting was a school or a package delivery company. After truck drivers and dockworkers at Emery Air Freight, for example, were positively reinforced, they worked together more efficiently and harmoniously. During boot camp at Fort Ord, California, a token-economy program was introduced in which soldiers could exchange points for such coveted backup rein-forcers as early dismissal and time off with pay. As a result, the soldiers not only maintained their morale but also met the rigorous standards of their superiors.

Industrial and organizational psychologists such as Walter R. Nord and Lyman W. Porter identified the behavioral approach as an innovative advance in the understanding of motivation during the early 1970s. Since then, hundreds of studies have been conducted in work settings and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Academy of Management Journal, and Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, as well as the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. Conducted by authors at the universities of Kansas, Florida State, and Western Michigan, as well as members of organizations in the public and private sectors, these experiments encompass multiple aspects of performance—productivity, attendance, safety, and service—with individuals, groups, and entire organizations.

Using Reinforcement Theory to Promote Substantial and Sustained Improvements at Work

Consequences Are Primary

The basic tenet of reinforcement theory is that behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences. In planning a program aimed at increasing safety, for example, behavior analysts identify what consequences follow the behavior of interest. They ask a number of questions: What happens when workers behave safely? Do coworkers applaud safe acts, behaviors, or performance? (The terms are used interchangeably here.) Does management recognize workers for performing as desired? Similar queries are made about the undesired consequences: What happens when workers perform unsafely? Do employees incur injuries? Are there penalties for acting unsafely? In other words, what are the consequences of safe and unsafe acts? When consequences are found to be sparse, rarely favorable, and at times unrelated to the desired behavior—not an atypical situation in many organizations—behavior analysts arrange for positive, contingent, and frequent consequences to follow the desired performance.

Evidence of the Effectiveness of Positive Reinforcement

Reviews of the literature (e.g., Johnson, Redmon, & Mawhinney, 2001; Stajkovic & Luthans, 1997) attest to the efficacy of positive reinforcement, the most prevalent organizational change strategy. Judith L. Komaki and her colleagues examined the literature from 1969 to 1998 and found successful improvements in a variety of work settings. Of a total of 72 meticulously controlled experiments, 58 studies supported positive reinforcement, 10 showed mixed support, and only 4 did not show any support—a success rate of 93%. The changes, on average, were not ephemeral; almost half of the studies lasted 26 weeks or longer, and in over 40%, the longest intervention was at least 12 weeks or longer.

Types of Positive Consequences Used in Work Settings

In setting up a positive reinforcement program, behavior analysts typically use one or more of the following consequences:

  • Organizational: Events that are indigenous to work settings, such as promotions, bonuses, and special training opportunities, are offered. For example, benefits such as free gasoline and free monthly passes on the bus system were made available as incentives for reducing accidents among workers in a regional transportation authority. Letters of recommendation were among the consequences successfully used by advisers to reinforce master’s degree students’ progress toward completing their theses.
  • Activity: Another class of consequences is derived from the Premack principle (named after researcher David Premack), which states that any higher-frequency activity can be used as a positive consequence for a lower-frequency activity. For example, when calls to renewal customers were found to have a higher frequency than calls to new customers, the former were made contingent on the latter. Making the opportunity to sell five renewal contracts dependent on the higher-frequency activity resulted in more new sales calls.
  • Generalized: Generalized consequences derive their potency from the fact that they can be exchanged for backup reinforcers. Examples include cash, frequent flyer coupons, and trading stamps. The latter, exchangeable for household and recreational items, were given to miners who had not suffered a lost-time injury during the month. In another instance, coupons were traded in at a job-training center for the opportunity to select a clerical assignment.
  • Social: Typically expressed by individuals, social consequences include commendations, compliments, criticism, reviews, and recognition for a job well done. For example, a hospital supervisor commented to a staff member, “I’m pleased to see you interact-ing with clients, but I’m sure Mary is even more pleased.”
  • Informational: As the name suggests, information is provided about performance. This information can be conveyed in notes to employees written by supervisors, in the form of a graph of baseline and intervention levels, or by listing, as one Louisiana official did, what had been done after a hurricane: “We’re feeding more people….We’re recovering more people….We’re clearing more roads….We’re building more power lines….Every day, more victories.”

Antecedents Play a Secondary Role

Confronted with problems involving the workforce, the most common recommendation is “to inform or exhort,” both of which are antecedents. Although antecedents serve valuable educational or cuing functions (e.g., clarifying expectations for performance, specifying the relationship between behavior and its consequences, and signaling occasions on which consequences are likely to be provided), when they are used alone, the evidence for their efficacy is meager. Field experiments addressing how consequences add to the effectiveness of antecedents consistently show that antecedents alone do not result in substantial and sustained improvements in ongoing behaviors, and only when consequences accompany antecedents do they occur. Because of the essential role of consequences in motivation, the delivery of one or more consequences is the mainstay of virtually all reinforcement programs.

Explanatory Power of Reinforcement Theory

Illuminating Why We Do What We Do

Reinforcement theory also clarifies why people sometimes do the perplexing, often paradoxical things they do—for example, why managers who purportedly believe in merit promote based on seniority, or why professors who profess about the importance of education neglect their teaching.

Normally, positive reinforcement is exercised in a constructive, planned way. But it can also be used, often inadvertently, to produce unwanted results. For example, the head of a public relations firm could not understand why her staff kept postponing work. Yet the year before, when the staff had been under pressure to produce an anniversary report, she had given permission to set all other work aside and hire temporary staff at company expense. When the report was finally completed, she gave everyone a bonus. Despite the agency head’s well-meaning intentions, she may have inadvertently reinforced her staff for procrastinating. Positive reinforcement may explain why some professors spend less time on teaching than research: because their promotion depends heavily on what appears in journals rather than in the classroom.

The principle of negative reinforcement, which involves escaping from or avoiding negative or aver-sive consequences, such as nagging, censure, or litigation, may explain why a manager would promote someone with only an adequate record rather than an exemplary employee with less seniority—to avoid complaints of favoritism or bias. The same principle sheds light on why people often remain quiet in the face of corruption—to avoid censure—and why some lieutenants choose to remain at their rank—to avoid the increased scrutiny, responsibility, and restrictions that come with being promoted to captain.

The consequences for performing as desired sometimes can be punishing. For example, the head of a major research laboratory bemoaned the lack of creativity of the engineers in his group. When asked about the consequences, however, he could readily point to a host of inherently negative consequences— their time-consuming, seemingly fruitless literature searches; difficulty communicating concepts that were, as yet, incomprehensible to their peers; and inordinate amounts of time expended before having anything to show for their efforts. All of these aversive events helped to explain why some engineers shunned such endeavors, preferring the tried and true.

The principle of punishment by removal, technically called response cost, wherein a positive rein forcer is withdrawn as a consequence of a behavior, sheds light on how some preferred behaviors can be unintentionally discouraged. For example, even when their lives are in danger, fighter pilots are often reluctant to call for help. Such an admission, as Tom Wolfe graphically points out in his book The Right Stuff, triggers a very public chain of events, some punishing— fire trucks trundling out to the runway, incoming flights being held up, the bureaucracy gearing up to investigate—and at least one punishment by removal—the pilot’s peers questioning the pilot’s mettle and hence dampening the idea that the pilot had “the right stuff.”

Although punishment or negative reinforcement are not recommended as the primary way of changing behavior, decision makers need to be sensitive to their use of these consequences, eliminating the punishing ones whenever possible and redesigning the flow of the work to enable naturally or specially arranged favorable consequences.

Shedding Light on What Effective Leaders Do

The theory of operant conditioning has inspired the challenging but rarely researched question of what effective leaders really do to motivate others. Komaki predicted in her operant model of effective supervision that first-rate managers are more likely to provide consequences. Because consequences must be related to what employees actually do, she conjectured that effective supervisors frequently monitor or inquire about performance, particularly by directly sampling the work. The original rationale was a logical one: Managers who monitor are more likely to have dependable and up-to-date information with which to provide contingent consequences. Later, she found that supervisors who monitor are more likely than those who provide antecedents to have subordinates who discuss their performance, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of back-and-forth exchanges between the two.

In every one of seven field studies, Komaki and her colleagues found that effective managers monitor, provide consequences, or do both. The consequences may be as brief as a simple “thanks,” or even an “okay” while sampling the work. Neutral consequences (e.g., “Yep. That’s all right,” or as an officer handed a sergeant a report, “You need a statement from the driver to complete that report.”) separated effective police sergeants from lackluster ones in a study by Neil Brewer and colleagues. Investment bankers, identified as exemplary in motivating others, actually thanked the bearer of bad news, acknowledging employees for bringing thorny issues to their attention. Furthermore, top-notch sailboat skippers were found to use a particular sequence during races in which monitors routinely precede consequences in what is referred to as an AMC sequence, where A stands for an antecedent (an order or instruction), M for monitor, and C for consequence. Exemplary leaders can perform these AMC sequences quickly.

Besides inspiring a leadership model and providing a way of explaining why people do what they do, rein-forcement theory shows how a judiciously arranged set of consequences can result in enhanced performance from day to day and season to season.


  1. Brewer, N., Wilson, C., & Beck, K. (1994). Supervisory behavior and team performance amongst police patrol sergeants. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 67, 69-78.
  2. Johnson, C. M., Redmon, W. K., & Mawhinney, T. C. (Eds.). (2001). Handbook of organizational performance: Behavior analysis and management. New York: Haworth.
  3. Komaki, J. L. (1998). Leadership from an operant perspective. London: Routledge.
  4. Komaki, J. L., Coombs, T., Redding, T. P., & Schepman, S. (2000). A rich and rigorous examination of applied behavior analysis research in the world of work. In C. L. Cooper & I. T. Robertson (Eds.), International review of industrial and organizational psychology2000 (pp. 265-367). Sussex, UK: Wiley.
  5. Porter, L. W. (1973). Turning work into nonwork: The rewarding environment. In M. D. Dunnette (Ed.), Work and nonwork in the year 2001 (pp. 113-133). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  6. Skinner, B. F. (1978). Reflections on behaviorism and society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  7. Stajkovic, A. D., & Luthans, F. (1997). A meta-analysis of the effects of organizational behavior modification on task performance, 1975-95. Academy of Management Journal, 40(5), 1122-1149.

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