Reinforcement Strategies

Reinforcement as a concept is mainly used in behavioral sciences where it is acknowledged that certain behaviors need to be encouraged for the good of all. Reinforcement refers to strengthening, and is applied in psychology to refer to any condition that strengthens or increases the likelihood of a specific response (Heffner, 2001). The concept of reinforcement is especially useful in any setting where human beings are in close contact. This study seeks to identify the reinforcement strategies used by law enforcement agencies and to establish how they differ from those used by managers in organizations. The focus then shifts to the specific strategies used to reinforce behavior in organizations and the effectiveness of each strategy.

Reinforcement can be used to strengthen appropriate behaviors right from the family level, to schools, workplaces and in society as a whole. In society, behaviors are reinforced using the law. The law consists of a system of rules and regulations which a certain people are subject to. The law is enforced in the sense that anyone who willfully disregards it is brought to account for any such violations of the law. Zaal (1994) argues that the success of the enforcement of any law, say traffic laws, is dependent on its ability to create a meaningful deterrent threat to road users. To achieve this, the primary focus should be on increasing surveillance levels to ensure that perceived apprehension risk is high. The law creates this apprehension fear by meting out punishment whenever such laws are broken.

Heffner (2001) classifies this system of deterring certain behavior by law enforcers as a form of reinforcement called punishment. Heffner further observes that this kind of reinforcement works on the principle that punishment is not desired and to avoid it people will avoid doing those things that attract such punishments. This line of thought has however come under severe criticisms where the laws are accused of not doing enough to reinforce behavior. The emergence of certain flawed arguments like, rules are made to be broken have brought the effectiveness of traditional law enforcement under sharp focus. This has led to the adoption of non-conventional strategies of reinforcing behavior by law enforcers. For instance, to deter people from driving under the influence of alcohol, Zaal (1994) recommends that publicity campaigns should always be an integral component of enforcement strategies. This will help to reinforce the desired behavior i.e. driving while sober.

Similarly, certain behaviors need to be reinforced at the workplace so as to help the organization achieve its purposes objectives. The only difference is that unlike in society, where the law does more to dissuade people from engaging in certain behaviors, the script changes a little at the workplace. Here, the management is keener on encouraging the repetition of certain good behaviors that are considered favorable for the attainment of the firms objectives.

Managers use various reinforcement strategies either singly or in combination. These include positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and continuous reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is defined by Griffin and Moorhead (2007) as reward or any other desirable consequence that follows behavior (p. 104). Negative reinforcement on the other hand, differs from positive reinforcement in that rather than receiving a reward, one is presented with an option of avoiding bad consequences by performing a certain activity. Continuous reinforcement according to Griffin and Moorhead (2007) has to do with the schedule of reinforcement. It occurs when good behavior is rewarded whenever it is done or performed. Other reinforcement strategies used include extinction and punishment reinforcement as used in law enforcement.

Managers have traditionally employed the use of extrinsic rewards to motivate employees to certain desired behaviors. Extrinsic rewards, as Thomas (2000) points out, refers to money or other tangible items given to employees to motivate them. This approach to motivation is in congruence with most of the motivation theories that are upheld up until now. Maslows hierarchy of needs and Jeremy Benthams Carrot and the Stick Approach (as cited in Shah,  Shah, n. d.) seem to agree with the use of extrinsic rewards as motivation. At the base of Maslows pyramid are physiological needs i.e. the need for food, shelter, clothing, medicine. Traditional managers equated these things with money. This was and remains true to some extent because according to Maslow, until these needs are attained to a sufficient degree, then the person will not ascend to a high degree of needs.

The Carrot and Stick approach is even more blatant on the utility of extrinsic rewards as a tool of motivation. It compared these rewards to a carrot that is dangled in front of a donkey. The carrot motivated the donkey to keep moving in the hope that it will reach the carrot that kept dangling in front of it. In this analogy, the stick is used to force the donkey to move. The stick in an organization would represent fear of punishment, of losing ones job etc all of which are powerful motivators whereas the carrot represents any reward such as money, promotion, bonuses etc.

Extrinsic motivation as Liz (2009) points out is anchored to an external stimulus-something outside the individual. Managers employ extrinsic motivation in various ways. According to Liz (2009), a manager may for instance, use money, fame and recognition, awards and prizes, status and privileges to motivate employee towards certain desired courses of action. A manager who adopts these strategies intends to use these rewards to strengthen the desired behavior. As such a manager is said to be employing positive reinforcement since the rewards are as a consequence of certain desired efforts.

Liz (2009) further points out that a manager may also use threats and punishments as extrinsic motivators. An employee in this case would seek to act in a certain way motivated by the desire to avoid the negative consequences that may result from violation. A manager who employs such a strategy is said to be using negative reinforcement to strengthen and encourage the repetition of a desired behavior. Such an approach is based on the fear of the consequences attached to failing to do what is expected.

Intrinsic motivation as the name suggests, is driven by internal factors. Thomas (2009) observes that intrinsic rewards come principally from the work that the employees engage in. An intrinsically motivated worker is driven by the satisfaction that is derived from the job. Thomas (2009) identifies several factors that are intrinsic motivators to employees. These include sense of purpose, ability to choose how tasks are managed, a sense of progress and a sense of competence (p 39).

Extrinsic motivation has the advantage of being able to stimulate an individual to perform a certain task even if there is no interest in it (Liz, 2009). A case in point would be the performance of repetitive and routine tasks that do not yield satisfaction for the employee. The energy to perform such tasks heavily relies on the extrinsic rewards that are to be expected.  Liz further points out that extrinsic motivation provides a means by which employees set personal goals and achieve them. In an effort to attain a certain reward, an employee may set individual goals and work hard to attain them. This is of mutual benefit to both the employee and the manager. This technique has been widely practiced by sales managers to motivate employees to achieve their targets.

Liz (2009) however points out that reliance on extrinsic motivation has several drawbacks. These include the fact that extrinsic motivation is not sustainable, it has diminishing returns and its use undermines the importance of intrinsic motivation, which is equally important as a motivation tool. Relying on rewards to attract certain behavior from employees in effect implies that a manager has to use the same bait to sustain such behavior. Liz (2009) notes that diminishing returns occur when, motivation gradually fades away when the punishment or reward stays at equivalent levels. Employees are therefore not motivated to outperform themselves when the rewards are bound to remain at the same level.

Intrinsic motivation unlike extrinsic motivation does not rely so heavily on close supervision. As Thomas (2000) observes, this is especially useful in modern day organizations where close supervision and detailed rules are no longer possible (p. 7). This owes to the fact that intrinsic motivation relies on factors inherent in the nature of the work or the individuals personal characteristics, that keep a person motivated to do the job well. The use of intrinsic motivation provides assurance that employees will perform their duties even when they are not under supervision from management.

Emphasis on intrinsic reward does not however render extrinsic rewards irrelevant. Extrinsic rewards remain an integral means of motivating employees. Liz (2009) points out that harnessing the power of extrinsic motivation lies in the ability to keep it in balance. A balance needs to be maintained between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation will serve to initially attract people to a job but in the long haul people need intrinsic rewards to keep going and to perform at their peak(Thomas, 2000, p. 8).

To sum it up, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can and are used by present day managers to motivate employees. They are further used to reinforce certain behaviors that the managers want strengthened. Positive reinforcement that encompasses both the use of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards is preferable. Negative reinforcement is subject to the same weaknesses as extrinsic motivators i.e. it cannot be sustained over a long time. Additionally, negative reinforcement requires close supervision from management. Continuous reinforcement should only be used to strengthen those behaviors that are desirable and that management wants to see repeated.


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