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Full Time, All the Time

with Britt Reints

Forget the 9 to 5; the demands of a working mom aren’t limited by a time clock. Full Time, All the Time is a blog about balancing the many roles of a modern woman - and maintaining your wellbeing while doing it. I am a writer, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and sometimes volunteer living in Pittsburgh. Oh, and I think you look pretty today.

You can also find Britt on Twitter and at

Should you lead with the stick or the carrot?

Categories: office life, relationships, working mom


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.

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4 comments so far...

  • I love this, and I’m definitely with you. Positive reinforcement creates a better environment (whether at work or at home), and that’s the kind of place I think we’re all more likely to thrive and succeed. Liberal and consistent is definitely the key.

    Leah K  |  February 2nd, 2011 at 12:17 pm

  • I think you’d enjoy Drive by Dan Pink, where he evaluates what truly motivates us. The overriding suggestion is that ongoing negative reinforcement is actually counter-productive to long-term performance and satisfaction - just as you surmise.

    Pink’s work made me simultaneously hopeful and discouraged because so many people (and companies) disregard the scientfinc findings about motivation.

    Knighton  |  February 2nd, 2011 at 12:48 pm

  • I don’t think it’s black and white. I think that in each case, you have to look at the person’s personality and the nature of what you want done. If you’re dealing with a person who is at a lower level of Maslow’s needs hierarchy, you’re going to motivate him differently than someone whose retirement account is already full and who wants to do something meaningful. If you’re trying to meet a do-or-die deadline, your motivation will be different from if you’re trying to design the perfect visual image for your business going forward.

    Personally, I get motivated by (a) fear of missing an important deadline, (b) the stimulation of a challenging and meaningful project (if I can spend the time to do it right), and sometimes (c) being told off for procrastinating! (Money does NOT motivate me at this point in my life.)

    SKL  |  February 2nd, 2011 at 1:45 pm

  • I am for positive reinforcement. I try to treat others like I’d like to be treated and I know how negative reinforcement affects me personally: I start looking for excuses for why I didn’t do so and so. When I get positive comments or praise I do my best to live up to it in other things that I do. I also love the idea of positive environment at home and at work, yes it takes patience to keep that environment running but there is a definite payback at the end.

    Maria  |  February 3rd, 2011 at 3:38 pm

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