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Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Which Is More Effective?

It has been said that rarely am I short of words, and yet this article I’ve re-written 5 times, why?

It’s not as if I have a lack of thoughts on this subject. It’s not as if I don’t spend my days enabling people to communicate powerfully and get what they want in life. So why the rewrites?

I’ve found myself thinking about the diversity of people I’ve coached and how different we all can be. Usually when I write for Lifehack, I’m able to see an instant commonality in the subject that means I could share some ideas that would resonate wherever you are in life, whoever you are regardless of what you were looking to achieve or what adversity you may face.

However with this, it’s a “how long’s a piece of string?” answer, i.e. I could probably write a whole book’s worth of 55,000 words and still have ideas I’d not had the chance to cover!

Let’s look at some key points:

  • You will have times in your life where you need to get someone to do something.
  • You will have times when someone needs you to do something.

Let’s look at how positive and negative reinforcement would work. In both of these situations, you can face some big obstacles:

  • Someone may resist your desire for them to change.
  • Someone may challenge your authority or leadership.
  • Someone maybe at risk of getting hurt.

You could find yourself feeling frustrated, like a poor leader, like a poor team player, like a lousy communicator, like you are rubbish at your job, or like you can’t do it.

The important thing to remember is that in life, we all have to be influenced and influence those around us and some ways will help us get the result we want and others won’t. But that may differ on where you are, who you are talking to and what you all want to see happen!

So how do we know when positive reinforcement is effective and can there ever be a time when negative reinforcement is good?

Worryingly, if you get positive and negative reinforcement wrong you can risk your career, your business, your relationships, your reputation and your brand.

Positive and negative reinforcement each have their merits, it’s knowing when to employ which. Some ways will wind up those around you and others, will inspire. And interestingly, despite a ton of evidence to the contrary, we still rely on the wrongs ones in society, business and even in parenting.

The 4 examples below showcase the use of positive and negative reinforcement and whether they personally apply to you right now or not, they will resonate and be very useful to you personally in every area of your life.

For each we will look at:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. What have you tried?
  3. Now what?
  4. The results!

The Boss

Okay you may not be a boss, however, everyone will have times in their life where they need to get people organized, and working together to get the best result. Often, leaders say things like this to me:

  • “I’ve told them until I’m blue in the face not to do that!”
  • “They constantly refuse to use the new system.”
  • “They just don’t listen.”
  • “They don’t respect me.”

What did the boss try?

Often, I hear “We’ve tried everything!” No matter who is reading this, trust me you’ve not tried everything. (That’s the first thing to accept.) When you accept that, you then need to look at what you have tried to move forward.

The boss has tried:

  • Given the person training.
  • Spent time with them showing them how to do it.
  • Told them it wasn’t good enough.
  • Told them we aren’t doing that any more.

Now what?

The above situations create tension between the two as you constantly battle to maintain your position on the situation. If you are looking to get someone to do something and they constantly resist, you need to stop and ask yourself some questions:

  1. What have we tried? This helps you to understand what they are good at and utilise that in the conversation.
  2. From their viewpoint, what could prevent them from doing what I’ve asked? What could they fear and how will we allay those fears?
  3. What do they want? Seeing their viewpoint enables you to use their terminology and language so they feel listened to.
  4. What do they believe? Does their beliefs prevent them from seeing the benefits? Beliefs can be changed but not by force – coaching is very powerful for this.
  5. How do these answers differ from my beliefs and views? Bridging the gap helps you to see both view points and communicate more powerfully.

In my experience, rarely does a boss or leader need to say the word “No”. If someone is not doing what you want them to, the quickest way to see results is to ask questions and listen. And often when you really listen, you discover a big gap between what you think you are saying and what the other person is hearing.

The reasons why someone is not doing what you want is:

  • They don’t know how to do what you’ve asked them to do.
  • They are scared to get it wrong.
  • They fear what people will think of them.
  • They don’t have the confidence to come and tell you they need help.
  • They are scared that someone will tell them off.
  • They don’t understand where the boundaries are.

People tell me “But I said that to them!” If you are too close to the situation, then how likely are they to take notice from you? Here’s what you can do:

  • Get out of your usual environments – neutral environments make difficult conversations easier. They can take you both off your guard which can be good.
  • Start by making that person feel safe to say anything. Ground rules like “This is a confidential conversation” and “I won’t make any judgement on what you say, I just want to understand.”
  • Be prepared to say “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t realize” When you do this positive and negative reinforcement can be used.

How do you do that?

Learning how to coach people instead of tell people is key. Enabling the other person to see the benefits of what you want for them (and not you) is quicker than trying to dictate action.

  • Lay out expected outcomes.
  • Create boundaries.
  • Explain what support and help you will provide.

Notice how none of this is about saying “Look you’ve just got to stop doing this!”. It’s all about “Okay, I now understand that you were doing this because of this and that. If I help you with this and if I check in with you once a week, you will be able to work in the way I need and we can get the result we both want. Have I missed anything?”

What you expect, what was agreed, what we don’t want to see happen any more and how to keep on track. Read on for additional ideas to really power this up.

The Results!

This style of reinforcement is about utilising both negative and positive reinforcement. It enables someone to feel safe to explain why they’ve not been taken action and helps them to overcome the limitations they feel they experience safe in the knowledge they will get the support to change with the positive results explained in a way that matters to them.

There was a member of a team of 14 who constantly did the opposite of everyone else. The boss was frustrated, the team was frustrated, their customers were frustrated. When I spoke to their boss, working with me was the final straw before asking them to leave and the boss wasn’t’ convinced coaching could help.

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