Motivation in the Workplace through Positive Reinforcement

Motivation in the Workplace through Positive Reinforcement

Perhaps the most effective technique used in marine mammal training is positive reinforcement. Most of you are already familiar with this principle – reinforce (reward) desirable behavior, and that behavior should increase in frequency. Motivation in the workplace from your staff is an important element of success. Find out how to motivate your staff and customers by implementing methods I used to motivate marine mammals.

With whales and other marine mammals, I used positive reinforcement as my primary method to increase desired behavior. If the whale does a flip when I ask, then it is rewarded with a handful of fish. If the whale fails to do a flip, then no fish is provided.

Many business owners motivate their staff and clients with positive reinforcement. They pay employees for a job well done. The give out bonuses for landing a huge account. Loyal customers receive a ten percent discount on their next order. All of these are examples of positive reinforcement in the workplace. They do work! Employees who receive a check for two weeks of work will be more likely to return for another two weeks of work. A salesperson that is reinforced for landing a huge account is more likely to land another huge account in the future. A customer is likely to place a future order after being reinforced with a 10% discount.

The topic of positive reinforcement goes much deeper – especially when applied to the business space. You must understand your different options of reinforcement and how to apply them in order to optimize the performance of your customers and employees.

Marine mammal trainers use fish as its’ primary form of reinforcement. Why? Because fish (food) has intrinsic value to the animal – they need it for survival. In business, employers use money as its’ primary form of reinforcement. Why? Because having money allows us to purchase items that have intrinsic value (food, water, etc).

When training marine mammals I used two schedules of reinforcement: a fixed schedule and a variable schedule. Both schedules had their place in training, and both schedule have their place when creating motivation in the workplace.

Fixed Schedule of Reinforcement

Using a fixed schedule of reinforcement meant that I would reinforce (feed) the whale after the whale completed a certain number of tricks or after a pre-determined period of time. It also meant that the amount of fish I gave was the same each time.

Examples of a Fixed Schedule of Reinforcement

After a Behavior

Feeding five fish after the whale completes each trick.

Whale flips – feed five fish
Whale jumps – feed five fish
Whale splashes – feed five fish

After a pre-determined Time Period

Feed 20 fish every two minutes, regardless of the whale’s behavior.

Whale flips – no feed
Whale jumps – no feed
20 min passes – feed twenty fish.

I used a fixed schedule of reinforcement when I wanted to establish trust with an animal I had never interacted with. Because my reinforcement was consistent it made them think, “hey, this guy isn’t bad! I know he is going to give me fish!” This helped the whale trust me.

Most business owners have their staff on one of the two versions of a Fixed Schedule of Reinforcement.

Business Examples of a Fixed Schedule of Reinforcement

After a behavior

A business owner pays it salesperson a commission when he/she successfully makes a sale. The salesperson knows that if they make the sale, they will get paid. Just as the whale knows if he jumps, he will get fish.

After a pre-determined time period

A business who pays its staff every two weeks. The staff is paid regardless of their performance.  As long as they show up and do the minimum work possible they know they will get a check every two weeks.

Employees enjoy these fixed schedules of reinforcement because the reinforcement (paycheck) is consistent. They know exactly what to expect for their behavior. This security allows them to trust their employer, just as the whale learned to trust their trainer.

Variable Schedule of Reinforcement

Once trust was established with a whale, I switched to a Variable Schedule of Reinforcement. A Variable Schedule of Reinforcement is one where the amount of reinforcement you apply and when you apply it are not predetermined. This meant that the whale may do five jumps and receive no reinforcement, then do a sixth jump and receive buckets of fish. This could also mean that the whale jumps once and receives ten fish, and receives no fish for the second jump. There was no pattern with how or when I reinforced the whale – it was completely variable.

The concept of Variable Reinforcement is well known in the training community, but escapes the business world…for the most part.

Which Schedule of Reinforcement is more effective?

Without a doubt, using a Variable Schedule of Reinforcement produced better results with the whales. The whales jumped higher and more often.


Not knowing when they would be reinforced made each jump or flip an exciting opportunity that could result in food! Whales who didn’t get fish for one jump knew the next jump could result in fish.

Using a variable schedule of reinforcement is the most effective way to generate desired behavior from your staff and customers. By using variable reinforcement, you will be able to motivate your staff and clients to perform how you see fit.

Variable Schedule of Reinforcement in your Business

I have yet to seen an example of employees being variable reinforced with money. I think it would be an interesting case study – but I wonder how apt employees would be to work for a company where you may or may not get paid this week.

Knowing this, we have to get creative with what we can use as reinforcement.

Let’s take monetary items off the table; money, gift cards, paid vacation, etc. What other items does your staff want? What do they find reinforcing?

Jeff Gunther, CEO of Meddius, a VA-based software company, completely changed the way he reinforced his staff. Through his own research and after reading the book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix it by Cali Ressler, Gunther found that employees wanted these ten items:

1. Purpose
2. Goals
3. Responsibilities
4. Autonomy
5. Flexibility
6. Attention*
7. Opportunities for Innovation
8. Open-Mindedness
9. Transparency
10. Compensation

Let’s pay special attention to number 6 – attention. The core of marine mammal training is ignoring behavior we don’t like, and drawing attention to behavior we do like. Motivating your staff and clients is achieved through ignoring undesirable behavior and drawing attention to behavior you like. For more detailed information on these ten “wants” check out this article.

Giving Attention Increases Staff Performance

When you see a marine mammal show, you’ll notice the trainers doing a variety of things after an animal completes a trick. Trainers may clap in front of the animals face, do a dance, spray it with a hose, give it a toy or a massage. All of these draw attention to the animal. They love it. While I don’t advise giving massages to your staff, you can variably give them attention to their behavior through other means.

Ways to draw Attention to your Staff

  • Send an e-mail to all of your staff, congratulating one individual on their latest success or just for having a great workday.
  • Verbally praise a staff member in front of the other staff.
  • Give a staff member a blown up red balloon. Call this balloon the “Brilliant Balloon” and have it rotate through your staff. This is a visual representation of a job well done and is sure to draw attention to the individual. (I literally just made this up as I was writing, but you get the idea.)
  • Leave a hand-written note thanking them for their hard work. Hand written notes strike a powerful emotional cord that a typed letter cannot.
  • Ask someone for advice. This not only makes them feel like a valued member of your business, but also puts 100% of your attention on them.
  • Compliment, compliment, compliment. Your staff wants your attention and if you can find ways to compliment them on their performance, attitude, or their new family portrait – it will drive them to perform at a higher level.

A Variable Schedule of Reinforcement with the whales also helped make aversive places, positive. For example, in every facility I worked at, there was a medical pool. This is where animals could be lifted out of the water for examinations and such. The reason the animals were willing to do this was because each time we brought them into the pool, we didn’t lift them out of the water. More often than not, they were asked to go into the pool and praised for doing so. That was it. When it was time to lift them out of the water they were fine with it because it occurred so infrequently.

A Variable Schedule of Reinforcement in your business also helps soften aversive scenarios for your staff. A staff member who is constantly late, for example, may be “talked to” in the boss’s office. If the only time a boss calls an employee into his/her office is for disciplinary reasons, then the office will have an aversive stigma. Staff will shutter each time they are asked to enter the office. However, if you call them in for good reasons more often than bad reasons, suddenly the office becomes a positive place. This means that when you do have to talk to Eric about his tardiness, he will be more open to join you in your office. This creates a happier work place for everyone.

Giving Attention Increases Customer Performance

If I fed the whale each time he did a really low jump, that whale would continue to do low jumps. If I fed the whale for high jumps and didn’t feed the whale for low jumps, then that whale would do high jumps. The majority of companies fail to utilize this method with their customers. In fact, they do the opposite.

The customer who complains about poor service or a faulty product will usually get a call from the company. The company will apologize for their poor experience and even offer a discount or refund. Meanwhile, the customers who never complain, pay on time, and refer their friends, get…nothing at all. Why are businesses drawing attention to undesirable behavior and then ignoring good behavior? I am not suggesting you ignore your “bad” customers, but I am suggesting that you give equal, if not more, attention to your “good” customers. They are the ones that will build your business.

Reinforcing Customers for Desirable Behavior

Most companies utilize a Fixed Schedule of Reinforcement with their customers. A policy that gives customers their tenth meal for free would be an example of a Fixed Schedule of Reinforcement because the customer knows exactly what behavior (eating 9 meals) will be reinforced and with what (a tenth meal for free). As we know, a fixed schedule establishes trust for the consumer. However, implementing a Variable Schedule of Reinforcement will increase the frequency of desired consumer behavior. This desired behavior is what will grow your business.

The next time you get a “good” customer, give them a discount. Simply say, “I really like you and I am happy you are choosing us, so I am going to give you 25% off your purchase.” I can almost guarantee you that this person will be so shocked that they will immediately take to social media and share their story. This is free and great publicity for your company! They will also become a repeat customer – also great for your company!

That is the power of variably reinforcing your customers. The next time this customer places an order and you charge them full price, they will not hesitate to pay – they were willing to pay full price the first time! More importantly, the knowledge that the next order could be discounted will increase the likelihood of them purchasing again. You are now operating like a casino. Or better yet – a killer whale trainer! The desired behavior of repeat purchasing increases in frequency due to your variable reinforcement. You can also apply this same technique to your current customer base.

If discounting isn’t your style, there are other ways you can draw attention to your customer. Make a deserving customer, customer of the month! You can post this on your company’s Facebook Page and really give them some attention. You could also simply thank a deserving customer personally on Twitter. The reason these outlets are more effective than an e-mail or phone call is that they are public. Praise publicly! If you are not involved with social media, e-mails and phone calls are still effective.

Calling a customer up to tell them “thank you” is a great way to variably reinforce desired behavior. When a company calls a customer it is usually to tell them that their product got lost in the mail, or they need additional paperwork. Meanwhile, the customer who’s product is on time – never receives a phone call. Take the time to call up and say thank you! If you do ever have to call with bad news, this will lessen the negative blow.

Will you variably reinforce your customers?

Final Thought

If you are going to take away one piece of information from this site, it should be the concept of variable reinforcement. As business owners you should reinforce behavior you like. This means variably giving your staff deserved attention and variably reinforcing your customers who will grow your business. Attention is only one way to reinforce, so get creative with the different ways to motivate your people.

Some whales didn’t want toys or massages – they only wanted fish. What did I do for these whales? I gave them fish! Keep it simple and don’t assume something is reinforcing. Not all of your staff or customers will embrace this attention – so be aware of their reactions and respond accordingly.

For more information on what motivates people and how to create motivation in the workplace, you may want to check out Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink.


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