| Jan 27, 2022

Everyone Can Be Right: Positive Reinforcement for a Thriving Company Culture

Remember: You catch more flies with honey – especially in the workplace, where positive reinforcement yields better results than anything else.
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By Kendra Estey |

<1 minutes

Company culture – a buzzworthy phrase exploding in popularity over the past few years, and rightly so! A high-performing company culture is inversely associated with employee turnover, and employee churn is expensive: turnover costs have been estimated as high as 213% of a year’s salary for a highly skilled job. But cost aside, high churn hurts a company’s culture.

To nurture an environment where quality people want to stay, companies need to support and uplift employees, rather than tear them down. Instead of only speaking up to punish employees two percent of the time for their mistakes, bosses need to start validating the 98 percent done right. With quit rates higher than ever, companies that cultivate a culture of positive reinforcement where everyone feels their rightness validated will be the ones that thrive.

The Case for Positive Reinforcement

In the1950s, Dr. W. Edwards Deming began proposing a workplace organized around positivity. Back when industrialists were still shouting abuse down the assembly line, he believed it was management’s responsibility to ensure everyone took joy in their work. But when he brought the idea to American automakers, they flatly rejected it. Given the post-war economic boom, they saw no purpose in something as paltry as quality control. Not until two decades later would the first American businessman publicly declare Deming’s importance as the “Father of the Third Wave of the Industrial Revolution.”

Meanwhile, Deming took his rejected “collaborative management” style to Japan, where he gave lectures to students and industrialists, including automakers, who did see the merit in his approach and adopted it. Japanese managers felt they successfully transferred a number of new untapped abilities, like optimism, self-efficacy, and resiliency, onto their workers and saw overall performance improve. Wide recognition among researchers accepts that Japan’s dramatic economic turnaround correlates with Dr. Deming’s visit, and Japan has blown American carmakers out of the water ever since.

Drive Out Fear

Of Deming’s 14 points on “collaborative management,” a core tenet is the need to drive out fear. Punishment and other forms of negative reinforcement make people too afraid of mistakes to perform their job well or innovate. No one can ever fully cooperate with someone whom they fear. Without fear, on the other hand, people achieve so much more than they could through isolated individual efforts. 

To prevent fear, let people know they have a few extra chances. Author and entrepreneur Stu Sjouwerman says the ideal management ratio is 9:1 with ample carrots, or incentives, and an infrequent stick, or discipline. Offer a graded process with training opportunities and plenty of discussion at each step. If someone keeps making the same mistake over and over again, sure, get a little stern. Up the gradient. But correct them in a way that presents a solution to fix the mistake next time instead of leaving them unsure and afraid they might make it again. 

Make People Right

When you call someone out for being wrong, they end up feeling demoralized and demeaned — it’s human nature. Not everyone has the skills to confront their own shortcomings and failures without becoming angry, defensive, self-abasing, or aggrieved, especially when the invalidation is coming from a boss. Even hearing it from another coworker is hard. The reflex is to justify, defend, and become critical of the accuser — a completely unproductive process helpful to approximately no one. 

Instead of pointing out when people are wrong, create opportunities for them to be right. Motivate them. Incentives for improvement increase workplace performance, so offer them frequently and make it easy for everyone to get involved. Create opportunities for them to feel pride in their work and present it to colleagues for praise. By letting others validate their role in the bigger picture, you build their sense of purpose in the company and the confidence to put themselves out there for it.

Validate the Rightness

When someone does something right, let them know, and often. Support their self-efficacy by praising them every chance you get. A 1997 study of 40 years of motivation surveys noted the significant impact on employees from simply feeling appreciated. Receiving positive recognition at work increases dopamine levels, making us feel better about ourselves and our role in the company. Encouragement, even when someone is unsure, helps them feel more capable of doing great things and makes them more likely to try. 

Draw out and promote people’s strengths instead of fixating on only weaknesses. Correct people when they make mistakes, of course, but instead of, “You screwed up!” tell them,“Great effort, but next time try this way!” Recognize what they did right and give gentle guidance where they can improve. Validation in their rightness instills the confidence needed to step up and take full responsibility for their position. A culture that promotes this kind of “extreme ownership” and self-accountability for one’s success and failures has been called the common thread between all great organizations today. 


Everyone Can Be Right About Something

Everyone has unique skills and natural talents. We learn at our own pace and excel in different areas. We also fall short in our own ways, but other people’s skills can offset those shortcomings. I tend to take on too much without asking for help, and I can sometimes struggle with taking negative client feedback personally. Others on my team might have tricks to deal with that, but I’ll only ever know by staying open to their input. Taking feedback without getting defensive shows them that I recognize and value what they have to offer as a chance for improvement. 

Drawing out people’s strengths can be more challenging with remote teams, but it’s not impossible. Solutions can be simple. One remote company found success through HeyTaco!, an app within Slack where employees can recognize their coworkers’ efforts in the form of taco emojis, which can be collected and redeemed for gifts. After 26K virtual tacos and redeeming 373 rewards, the company discovered the importance of communicating gratitude, and taco giving became a cornerstone of their thriving company culture. We started using HeyTaco! at our organization recently and have already found it to be not only an incredible way to demonstrate gratitude and validation, but it’s also just really fun!

Like the death penalty has done nothing to eliminate murder, as a management style, punishment does nothing to reduce mistakes. On the other hand, research has been demonstrating the benefits of positive reinforcement for decades. A culture built on positive reinforcement grows into an effective and resilient team that takes responsibility for their work and drives solutions for the company. It’s what worked wonders for us — it might just work for you, too.

Kendra Estey
Executive Author

VP of Operations, Writer, & Editor, Massive Alliance

Kendra is the VP of Operations at Massive Alliance as well as a seasoned writer and editor with experience across industries and around the world. view profile


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