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Positive Feedback and Arabian Horses?

Positive Feedback and Arabian Horses?

About a year ago I was conducting a workshop with a group of leaders on the topic of employee reward and recognition. Group exercises focused on finding ways to share rewards and recognition with employees.

A key belief many of us hold is that sharing rewards and recognition with employees is an excellent way to reinforce positive outcomes and to — over time — increase positive outcomes and move away from negative or undesired outcomes.

While reading Modern Arabian Horse magazine (Spring 2012), I found one of the articles very interesting. The article was a short tutorial about training the horse to do a maneuver called a sidepass by responding to the riders leg pressure.

“It is not important that your horse does a perfect sidepass since your goal is to have your horse move away from leg pressure. Repeat this exercise several times during each ride. Initially, he will only take a step or two; reward him for even a slight movement in the direction you want. He will quickly learn what you are asking of him…”

Please don’t misunderstand the purpose for connecting this idea to employee engagement. Whether we are working with horses, family, employees or co-workers, we all respond to external stimulus. In the training tutorial, the external stimulus is the leg pressure provided by the rider, which gets rewarded. The reward results in a repeat of the desired performance or outcome. The reward reinforces the continuation of the behavior.

We do the same thing with our families and with co-workers. With families — those of us who have raised kids — have two choices with young children: we generally use positive or negative reinforcement. Coincidentally enough, in the work place we do the same thing. Almost all of us have codified approaches to positive and negative influence in the workplace. We have programs to praise and reward employees, like the employee of the month, for example. We have policies that govern corrective action. At home, we don’t have codified documents or programs, as such, but most families develop traditions and practices around the use of positive and negative reinforcement.

Studies show that positive reinforcement is much more powerful than negative reinforcement. So, why don’t we use more of it? What are we afraid of? Why is sharing the positive message difficult?

During the workshop, one group struggled and asked an interesting question. Intellectually, they understood that using reward and recognition was a good thing; they were really concerned that we might end up giving out too much reward and recognition.

After some discussion, the larger group attending the session mutually agreed that having a problem like too much positive reward and recognition would be a good problem to have.

In the article on training the arabian horse to sidepass, there is no mention, not one mention, of using negative reinforcement to get the horse to learn and master the sidepass maneuver. All learning is done with positive reinforcement. “Reward for even a slight movement in the direction you want…”

Is too much positive reinforcement a problem? No, too much positive reinforcement is not a problem. Use any excuse to reinforce the outcomes that are important to your team.

What opportunities do you have to give positive messages to your team?

Do you use these opportunities daily?

Are you at the point where you are running the risk of giving out too much positive reinforcement to your team?

Do members of your team complain to you about getting too much praise, too much reward or too much recognition?

Are you willing to commit to giving out more positive reinforcement to your team?



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Philip Espinosa partners with people to deliver value: People | Partnerships | Value serves as his tag line. As a strategic human resources leader, he believes that service starts with the customer. His book "Deliver Excellent Customer Service with a SNAP” helps others drive customer engagement using simple and consistent communication strategies. A second book titled "Focus On Your Success - 24 Simple Insights To Drive Daily Achievement" (ebook) helps working professionals view their daily choices through a different perspective. In addition to his writing, Philip works with strategic human capital initiatives and has delivered successful results over a career spanning more than 25 years.

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