I spend a great deal of my life trying to motivate other people to do things. Whether it’s asking my children to pick up their rooms or encouraging writers to meet deadlines, I’m often relying on other people to do their part to make my day go smoothly. Such is life when no man (or woman) is an island, I suppose; even the most resourceful and self reliant among us must learn how to inspire action in someone else at some point.
The question is not if we’ll have to motivate others, but how we’ll choose to do it. Specifically, will we rely on negative or positive reinforcement?
My marketing background has taught me that the fear of loss is a more powerful motivator than the hope for gain. In other words, people will work harder to protect what they already have than they will to get something new. To me, that sounds an awful like like negative reinforcement is more powerful.
Threaten to hit someone’s paycheck and they’ll make sure they don’t make the same mistakes again.
Tell your kids you’ll take away toys and they’ll make a more concerted effort to follow the rules.
I understand the psychological benefits of these tactics. But… and this is a big but for me… I don’t want to be a negative person. I also don’t want to foster negativity in other people’s lives. Whenever possible, I want to focus on positives and reward good behavior.
I’d like to offer bonuses for a job exceptionally well done.
I’d like to heap praise and extra hugs on a child who follows instructions the first time they’re given.
But is that naive? Does my optimism and idealism fly in the face of proven realities about human behavior? Am I hoping for the best while setting myself and the people I count on up for failure?
I don’t think so. For one thing, I know how I respond to positive and negative reinforcement. There is a distinct difference in working not to get fired and working to succeed. The quantity of work may be the same, but the quality is noticeably better when I’m striving rather than merely surviving. I also tend to tune out people who are consistently critical. ”Oh, they’re never happy” is an easy way to dismiss what may be valid feedback. (Funny, I rarely find myself saying “oh, they’re just too easy to please” to disregard positive feedback.)
The trick, I think, to making positive reinforcement work is to remember another “psychological truth” I’ve picked up from self help gurus: it takes more repetition to make a positive thing stick than a negative one. Old school child psychologists suggest that it takes four positive statements made to a child to balance out one negative or critical statement.
In order for positive reinforcement to really motivate people, you’ve got to be liberal and consistent with it.
Does that make the case for negative reinforcement being more effective? Maybe. But I believe the effectiveness is short-term and less reliable. And, more importantly, I want to choose positivity in my work and my home.
Even if that means I have to repeat myself a few more times to make it stick.