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When I first heard about positive reinforcement, it was in regards to training animals. Then after I had my children, many of those same techniques applied to parenting. Like most interpersonal skills, positive reinforcement is one that people can overlook. But, as a matter of fact, positive reinforcement is one of those interpersonal skills we see examples of every day. It’s an important thing that people can use in nearly any situation.
Whether you’re dealing with children, parents, your boss, your partner, or yes, even your animals, positive reinforcement is a useful skill for reaching your goals. Heck, you can even use it on yourself. Imagine the possibilities. Interpersonal skills examples, like positive reinforcement, are everywhere. The trick is to apply them to your life to achieve your goals.
What is Positive Reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement means rewarding the behavior you want to see, to increase the likelihood that it will happen again.
Take, for example, housetraining dogs. When you take them outside to go to the bathroom, and they do, you shower them with affection. Theoretically, if you repeat this after every time they go to the bathroom outside, but not when they have an accident in the house, they will put two and two together and pee outside.
This concept of positive reinforcement can easily translate to humans, and help them work effectively in a team environment. A pizza party or a bonus for completion of team activities would be a good choice. Using praise is also helpful.
And when you’re trying to help people to build interpersonal skills, positive reinforcement can be a powerful tool.
Recognizing Interpersonal Skills: Examples
Interpersonal skills are something you learn over the course of your life and use every day in a variety of circumstances. You might also hear them called soft skills or people skills. Some interpersonal skills examples include positive conflict resolution, effective communication, listening abilities, and self-control. Other interpersonal skills examples include time management, the ability to work with a team, and the ability to ask the right questions.
Positive reinforcement is a technique that can help you to develop the interpersonal skills of your employees and team members. By rewarding the behaviors that you want to see in your team, you can help your team to achieve its goals. You can also cultivate the behaviors that you want to see.
The power of positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement relies on associating completion of a goal with a reward. Think of it like a dog treat. You want your dog to sit, so when your dog sits, he gets a treat. The dog starts associating sitting with treats, which is something he wants. Eventually, even if you remove the treat, the dog will sit upon command. He may still wait for that treat, but he’ll do what he’s told because the reward is given repeatedly and consistently for following directions.
That’s the power of positive reinforcement, and it can be applied anywhere. Consider your workplace, where you’re the boss of ten people. They have to work together on a project, but getting ten people to work together in harmony isn’t always an easy task. What if you broke the project down into a series of sessions, and offered a reward for completing their task? Maybe it’s a monetary reward, or perhaps it’s donuts. Whatever you choose, as long as everyone wants it, and you offer it every time, the group will associate the positive feelings from the reward to their project completion.
They feel good and are motivated; you feel good, the job gets done. Everyone benefits.
The detriment of negative reinforcement
On the other hand, negative reinforcement will have the opposite effect. Let’s define negative reinforcement because people generally associate this technique with punishment. Negative reinforcement doesn’t necessarily mean something negative happens after a behavior, but that the positive reward is absent. It can mean something negative happening, but it doesn’t have to be. The absence of a prize or an unpleasant stimulus is enough to encourage a behavior.
For instance, if every time a dog has an accident on the rug, you wipe their nose in it, that’s not going to train them to go outside. The dog will instead associate having an accident on the carpet with whatever negative stimulus you provide. It could result in your pup going to the bathroom in a different area, or fearing you altogether.
Using the working example, say every time your team finishes a leg of a project, you, as the boss, ignore them and go home. Suppose you give them no incentive or praise at all. What if you even yell at them for not getting further on the project? The result isn’t going to be that they’ll work harder. The result will be a slogging group who barely gets through or worse. They may avoid you, or the project, or work. They’re not learning anything from this type of reinforcement. The only thing they do learn is avoidance.
Where Did Positive Reinforcement Come From?
Positive reinforcement is also known as operant conditioning. Operant conditioning, as coined by B.F. Skinner in 1938, includes both positive and negative reinforcement. It was Skinner’s point of view that conditioning was too simple for the human mind, and chose to look at the relationship between cause and effect of behavior.
He took the law of effect and surmised that behavior which resulted in something positive repeated whereas a negative consequence was not. He concluded that positive reinforcement strengthened behaviors and negative reinforcement (often taken as punishment) weakened behavior.
Who Benefits From Positive Reinforcement?
When we’re talking about positive reinforcement, both parties benefit. The person is giving the positive reinforcement benefits because whatever task or behavior they want changing or completed, is done. Also, the person (or animal) performing the task and receiving positive reward benefits by receiving the reward.
In the future, both parties continue to benefit for the same reasons. If you take away the positive reward, they will still complete the task. The person or pet completing the mission still has a good feeling about having done their work.
Positive reinforcement is the very essence of a win-win situation.
Proper positive reinforcement use
The way to properly practice positive reinforcement is to choose a personalized reward for the recipient. Also, the reward has to be given immediately following the task, every time they perform.
For instance, if you want to teach your dog to sit, and your dog hates peanut butter treats, offering him a peanut butter treat isn’t going to do anything. You have to match the reward and give the task performer something they like.
If this sounds like bribery, it does have some similarities. The main difference is with a bribe the person offers a gift or a promise of a gift before the behavior or task is complete. Reinforcement, as mentioned, is given immediately after completion of the job.
How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Achieve Your Goals
When you have a goal you would like to reach, or you have a team you would want to achieve a goal, you have to pick a treat. If it’s you who needs to get something done, pick something you’re going to love and give it to yourself when you complete it.
If you’re trying to motivate a team, get a consensus on what they would collectively love as a reward and plan to deliver when their task is complete. It’s crucial that you give the gift or reward to yourself and your team every time to reinforce the positive behavior.
It may take a bit of planning, but the result and future performance will be worth the extra effort. You’ll be creating good habits for yourself and your team that will last.
The Psychology Behind the Practice
People are social creatures. We positively respond to positive stimuli. If we open the door for someone and they offer a thank you, that’s a positive response. If you receive an enthusiastic thank you every time you open a door for someone, it’s likely you’ll continue that practice.
Receiving something positive, whether it’s a tangible or intangible reward, feels good. Tangible rewards are something you can touch, like food or money. Intangible rewards come in the form of something you can’t touch, like praise. All creatures, human and animal, want to feel good. We want to matter, and to do good things. That’s the psychology behind the practice. It’s a primal need.
The Beauty of Positive Reinforcement
We’ve talked about how we want to feel good and do good things. We’ve talked about how both sides benefit from positive reinforcement practices, and that’s the real beauty.
Appropriately done, positive reinforcement leads to the completion of a desired task or behavior and leaves everyone feeling good afterward. This practice leads to a higher confidence level and a substantial likelihood of the repetition of the conduct or task in the future.
The Other Side of the Coin
Considering all the things we learn throughout our life about interpersonal skills, examples exist in our every interaction. Positive reinforcement is one of those techniques that often lead to the desired outcome. But there is a downside to positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement that isn’t authentic can creep over into the condescending category. Also, if it’s overused, it can lose its magic. Instead of being a treat for a job well done, it becomes an expected gift.
That’s not to say its not a good practice because it is, but the proper administration is key if you want to retain its full effectiveness.
Effective Use Positive Reinforcement
Keeping in mind the goals you’re trying to accomplish, and your learned interpersonal skills, examples of using them as effective tools are plentiful. Not only in eliciting certain behaviors from animals but people as well. As long as the rewards are authentic and not overused, positive reinforcement has little downside.
There are plenty of examples of positive reinforcement naturally occurring in society every single day to prove it’s effectiveness. From a simple thank you for completing a kind gesture, to a pizza party for a job well done, all creatures respond relatively the same to positive stimuli. Positive reinforcement encourages the repetition of desirable behaviors, while negative reinforcement breeds avoidance.
Used in the workplace, in your home, or in your life, if you want the job done or the behavior changed, positive reinforcement is the strategy to pull from your interpersonal belt.