Aubrey C. Daniels’s Bringing out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement (2016) stands out as one of the most practical and comprehensive handbooks I’ve encountered on effective management techniques by a behavioral psychologist.
Central to Daniels’s approach is a management system rooted in positive reinforcement, which he argues leads to significant and measurable outcomes in both the short and long term. He contrasts this with traditional methods of punishment and criticism, which he finds to be ineffective and counterproductive. Instead, he advocates for praise and rewards to drive lasting behavioral change and enhance productivity. Drawing on principles from behavioral psychology, the book provides actionable strategies for implementing positive reinforcement effectively, fostering an environment of appreciation and support, and unlocking individuals’ full potential. Now in its third edition, it also offers insights into organizational change and establishing fair performance standards tailored to each person.
Here are some key takeaways from the book:
- Incentives Drive Behavior. People don’t do what you tell them; they do what gets them a reward. “Managers must understand why people behave as they do with the same depth that scientists understand gravity” and align desired behavior with organizational objectives. Don’t “find fault or place blame, but analyze why people are behaving as they are, and modify the incentives to promote the behavior you need.”
- Value What They Value. Positive reinforcement proves to be the most effective method for motivating individuals. It extends beyond mere monetary rewards or verbal praise; it encompasses anything of value to an employee. For instance, allowing an employee to dedicate some time to working on a favorite feature can serve as a form of reinforcement.
- Consistency Shapes Behavior. Positive reinforcement has to be an everyday affair. It is most effective when it occurs immediately, is specific, and happens frequently. (Studies indicate that children with ADD and learning disabilities can maintain focus for extended periods while playing video games that offer 85 positive reinforcements per minute.)
- Pure Praise, No Prompts. Positive reinforcement loses its effectiveness when followed by criticism (such as in “but, you need to improve X, Y, Z”) or suggestions for improvement because it dilutes the impact of the praise and can create confusion or mixed signals for the individual receiving feedback. “Do not use the occasion for praise as an opportunity to prompt or instruct.” The popular sandwich feedback technique has many pitfalls.
- Regular Talks = Better Performance. Plan, give feedback, and adapt weekly. Hold weekly planning and feedback sessions. Relying solely on monthly reinforcement offers only 12 chances per year to influence someone’s performance. The annual review and bonus process doesn’t give employees the chance to make adjustments when it’s most crucial.
- Reward High Performers; Redirect Others. Managers should prioritize recognizing and reinforcing the efforts of high-performing employees rather than solely focusing on addressing issues with underperformers. When dealing with employees who are not performing well, allocate a limited amount of time to address factors such as lack of necessary skills or abilities, inherent personality traits, or deep-seated behavioral patterns. However, if despite considerable effort there is only marginal improvement, it’s best to minimize losses by suggesting that their strengths may be better utilized in a different role. Assist them in finding a position that suits them better.
- Continuously Refreshed Goals = Fresh Motivation. After reaching a goal, individuals may lose motivation due to complacency, like students after an “A” grade. To combat this, set new goals, offer feedback, recognition, and incentives, and foster a culture of continuous improvement to sustain motivation and drive progress.
- Coercion Kills Motivation. An authoritarian or coercive “do it or else” demand typically only prompts individuals to perform at the minimum level required because it instills fear or compliance rather than genuine motivation. When faced with threats or coercion, people often focus on avoiding punishment rather than striving for excellence. This approach stifles creativity, initiative, and intrinsic motivation, resulting in minimal effort and limited engagement.
- Clear Targets, Unstoppable Momentum. To motivate employees, establish a transparent method for measuring achievement. This encourages self-motivation. For instance, a software programmer’s performance could be measured by the number of bugs fixed, with extra recognition for addressing severe issues, or by the volume of documentation produced.
Recommendation: Quickread Aubrey C. Daniels’s Bringing out the Best in People. The book thoroughly reinforces principles and highlights the transformative impact of recognizing and reinforcing desired behaviors, benefiting both individuals and organizations. Enhance your team management by implementing systems and structures that effectively reinforce individuals in alignment with organizational goals.