What is Behavioural Reinforcement: What One Judgy Uncle Can Teach Us About the Psychology of Rewards

By Sarah McVanel, Chief Recognition Officer, Greatness Magnified

image of a stack of quartersMy friend has an uncle who goes to restaurants with a big stack of quarters. Whenever a server does something wrong, he takes a quarter off the top of the stack and puts it into his pocket. He’s not too subtle about it either.

Have you ever worked in service? I have. I’ve served people like her uncle. Ouch, right?

What if, every time the uncle saw something good, he added a quarter to the stack? Heck, what if when he saw a moment of struggle, vulnerability, or overwhelm, he would add two quarters to the stack?

Taking quarters off is about a performance reward (or, in this case, punishment). The better you “perform,” the more you get compensated in tips. We may have started reading this thinking, “That uncle is a jerk!” However, haven’t we all done or experienced an example of that, where we lose something if we don’t perform, rather than gain something when we do?

Rewards, in this context, are negative. The server can only lose. There is no winning through improvement, only losing through lack of it. What her uncle does not realize is that he was reinforcing poor performance. Between rigidity and lack of clarity about how optimal service performance is defined, the server loses the desire to demonstrate exceptional service.

“You get more flies with honey” isn’t just a colloquial saying; it’s science. If he added quarters when support was needed, and effort was made – in other words, unconditional recognition rather than rewards – the server would want to prove him right when he saw the best in his server.

The currency – quarters – may be the same in both examples, but the belief about what deserves reinforcement determines whether it’s a reward or a punishment.

The Psychology of Reinforcement

In this example, I’m diving into the very first concept I fell in love with in psychology: operant conditioning. I literally have notes on the inside of my first-year textbook all about it. There were many more notes to follow (the text was 600 pages, after all); however, there was something so empowering about the idea: by simply encouraging more of what works, you get more of what you want! (It also clarified why punishment feels so ick.)

So this dude BF Skinner created the theory of operant conditioning based on another dude – Edward Thorndike’s – law of effect. In a nutshell, the consequences of a behaviour directly impact if that behaviour happens again. In other words, you can strengthen what gets reinforced, and what is punished gets weakened.

image of a tip jar full of moneyAnd it gets more interesting when you add in a second layer: whether the reinforcement and punishment are positive or negative.

  1. Positive reinforcement – adding something positive strengthens behaviour.
  2. Negative reinforcement – removing something negative strengthens behaviour.
  3. Positive punishment – removing something desired weakens behaviour.
  4. Negative punishment – adding something negative weakens behaviour.

Can you see how the uncle was all about positive punishment? How many people do you know are motivated by punishment and the lack of reward?

Solution Focused Recognition

Rather than taking a leaf out of the uncle’s book and only looking for what’s not working, problems, and issues, let’s flip to the reinforcement side of the theory.

Forever Recognize Others’ Greatness is looking for signs the person is doing the best they can. It makes us curious about what might deserve support, acknowledgement, and care. It also allows us to see the person first. In other words, the server is a person (who happens to be doing the job of serving).

[Rant alert: It drives me bananas when folks ignore people doing the work – not making eye contact, not saying thank-you, yelling, and (cringe) snapping their fingers to get a server’s attention! This behaviour happens when they are treated as a job occupied by a nameless person.]

The forever part of Forever Recognize Others’ Greatness is what makes it about reinforcement. When we don’t think we are one mistake away from punishment, then we want to keep trying.

And this gets us to the next yummy part of this theory.

When you fail to recognize effort, like the uncle, there is a decreasing likelihood that more effort will be extended. That smiley, goodnatured server that first approached your table sees that every time the tiniest slipup is made, he gets punished, and suddenly the jolly is extinguished (say goodbye smiles, swinging by the table to see how things are going, water top-ups, and a smiley face on the check.)

By the way, you can extinguish negative behaviour, too. Have you ever had a server that didn’t seem to be having a good shift, and you decided as a table to “kill them with kindness”? Over the course of the meal, you noticed her relax a little, crack a joke, give you extra candies with the bill, and say thanks for coming in? Yep, you’ve helped to extinguish her bad mood (that perhaps the customer before – the uncle – created!)

The quarters for performance is a reward. The quarters for effort is recognition. Which one would make a bigger difference for that server? Which would matter more?

Socially Responsible Appreciation

Let’s take this beyond the psychology of things and turn up our social consciousness a notch. I have to. My son works in service. I met my hubby while working in hospitality. And many of my clients run hotels, country clubs, fast food restaurants, and call management organizations. I feel the need to remind us all that recognition is about doing good, feeling good, and contributing to social good!

image of a waiter serving a table of happy customersHere’s what the uncle is forgetting:

  • Many service professionals don’t make a living wage. Those quarters contribute to the rent cheque, so it’s not a game.
  • Many restaurants and local retailers struggle to pay the bills. Those quarters (that might take the form of Google reviews) might make the difference in keeping the lights on or not.
  • Often, people in service are treated as transactional temporary commodities, yet they are expected to provide relationship-oriented service delivery.

Our dear old uncle felt entitled to evaluate every micro-interaction and product, including the things that the server couldn’t control, as a way to pick apart and look for issues. I can only imagine how much less enjoyable going out to eat was for him, and for all the people he went out to eat with! It’s a negative experience for everybody.

When you focus on what is working, such as the ambience, how staff are working together, the speed of the food, a smile from a server, somebody offering to refill your water, and the list goes on, isn’t that more likely to make you enjoy your dining experience?

What Gets Appreciated Gets Repeated

image of many thought bubbles with thank you written in many languages on a colourful backgroundI invite you to reflect for a moment: what relationships and contexts do you use as a recogntiion activator to positively reinforce the relationship, service or product? And where do you (intentionally or not) punish? And how is it working for you (and others)?

Thanks for what you do to add quarters into the world.

Here are a few more examples of how recognition and rewards work together or independently of one another:

Disclaimer/Humble Brag Moment: 100% of this content was human-generated (by us folks here at Greatness Magnified). We are committed to authorship integrity and will inform you what percent, if any, is AI generated.

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